It's no secret that too many people seek medical care unnecessarily at hospital emergency rooms. Those visits are not only costly -- to patients and the health care system as a whole -- they also lead to longer wait times at ERs. (A recent story from the Merced Sun-Star reported that wait times in 2009 rose to an average of four hours, seven minutes nationally and four-and-half hours in California.)
Yesterday the RAND organization released a study asserting that 16.8 percent of ER visits could have been handled by retail medical clinics or urgent care centers, saving the nation some $4.4 billion annually. Retail clinics can treat non-emergency conditions such as colds or urinary tract infections. Urgent care facilties can respond to more significant problems, such as minor fractures and serious cuts.
Limited hours at clinics and urgent centers restrict the percentage of ER visits that can be diverted. RAND researchers estimate that 27.1 percent of visits could be handled at alternative venues, if the latter were open longer hours.
PHOTO CREDIT: Viorica Bantea sees Lucille Cannon of Sacramento for her broken ankle at an after-hours urgent care clinic for the Family Medical Clinic office on L Street in 2008. Autumn Cruz / The Sacramento Bee