9 Patients Account for Nearly 2,700 Emergency Room Visits, Study Finds

April 06, 2009 07:30 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
While trying to determine who uses emergency rooms, one group found that a small number of patients who abuse the system can put a disproportionate burden on facilities.

Who Uses Emergency Rooms?

Integrated Care Collaboration determined that the nine patients in Central Texas “cost hospitals, taxpayers, and others $3 million,” according to The Austin American-Statesman.

One of the people spent 145 days in the emergency room in 2008, and visited 554 times from 2003 through 2008.

Ann Kitchen, executive director of ICC, a group of hospitals and other care providers that treat uninsured and low-income populations in Central Texas, said her group “looked at frequent users of emergency departments … and that’s the extreme.”

Kitchen continued, “What we’re really trying to do is find out who’s using our emergency rooms … and find solutions.”

Eight of the nine Texas patients had drug abuse problems, some were homeless and others had mental health trouble, The Dallas Morning News reported. “Solutions include referring some frequent users to mental health programs or primary care doctors so they will go there first in the future,” Kitchen said.
But the issue of frequent ER users is not unique to Austin. “Every ER doctor anywhere in the country can tell you who their top 10 list is,” Dr. Christopher Ziebell of University Medical Center told CBS News.

Overuse by a few can pose a problem for other people as well, because they generally can’t pay for their medical care. Programs like Medicare and Medicaid help foot the bill.

“If we’re talking about $3 million among nine people in Austin, Texas, then we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars across the nation,” Ziebell explained.

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Analysis: Effects of emergency room abuse

Overuse of an emergency room can prove to be detrimental to a hospital. According to an article at, federal law requires emergency rooms to treat all people, whether or not patients can afford care.

But if people use an emergency room for the wrong reasons—trying to get help for an issue that could be treated in outpatient care, for example—they start stretching medical personnel too thin.

One doctor said he had once heard of a patient requesting an ambulance for trouble with a sore toe. “They use it for a transportation source or they try to beat the system. They figure if they come in by ambulance they’ll be seen faster,” the doctor explained to

In 2007, The Times in Gainesville, Ga., reported that some hospitals were trying to curb ER abuse by requiring patients to pay up front if they came in for something other than an emergency. 

At the time, Kevin Bloye, spokesman for the Georgia Hospital Association, told The Times that emergency room abuse was an issue faced by every Georgia hospital. “A lot of it is linked to the uninsured population, which is growing so fast,” he stated.

“Frequent flyers’ are a huge problem,” Bloye noted. “These are people who show up in the ER every week or every other week, often with behavioral or alcohol issues. They’re taking time away from other patients.”

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