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Characteristics of Frequent Emergency Department Users

The increased use of U.S. hospital emergency departments has received considerable attention from both the health care community and policymakers in recent years. This analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation examines the demographic and health characteristics of people who frequently visit the emergency room to help understand why their utilization is so high.

Using data from the nationally representative Medical Expenditures Panel Survey, the analysis finds that high emergency department users (those who made four or more visits during a two-year period) are more likely to be in poor health and have higher anticipated needs for health care—specifically the elderly, the poor, and those living with chronic conditions. The findings also reveal that these individuals do not obtain care exclusively in the emergency room, but also use outpatient services at a greater rate than people who rarely visit emergency departments.

In terms of health insurance coverage, the analysis finds that the uninsured are not more likely to frequently visit emergency departments than those who are insured. High emergency department users are far more likely to have Medicare or Medicaid coverage, likely due to the poor health and age of these populations, whereas the majority of low users and non users are privately insured.

Issue Brief (.pdf)