2.9 million emergency department visits for lower-urgency conditions

NOTE: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) staff are assisting other Government agencies, including the Department of Health, to monitor the COVID–19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

This is our top priority and some of the work we had planned for 2020 has been delayed. We are still releasing some reports and other data products, especially those which were close to completion prior to the pandemic or contain information which is time-sensitive for policy-makers and service-providers.

The information in this media release is for a time period before the 2019-20 summer bushfires and the COVID–19 pandemic.

More than one-third of emergency department (ED) presentations in 2018–19 were for lower urgency care according to a new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Some of these presentations could have been managed by GPs or community health services.

The report, Use of emergency departments for lower urgency care: 2015–16 to 2018–19, includes information for Primary Health Network regions and local (SA3) areas across Australia.

‘In 2018–19, 35% of hospital ED presentations (2.9 million) were classified as lower urgency, down from 38% in 2015–16,’ said AIHW spokesperson Mr. Michael Frost.

EDs provide care for people who require urgent, and often life-saving, medical attention. 

However, many people present to the ED for health conditions that may be managed more appropriately and effectively in a different health care setting, such as through their general practitioner or a community walk-in clinic.

Lower urgency cases are those where people are assessed as needing semi-urgent (triage category 4: should be seen within 1 hour) or non-urgent care (category 5: should be seen within 2 hours) and does not include people who arrived by ambulance or police, were subsequently admitted to hospital or died.

Across Australia, the use of EDs for lower urgency care ranged from 53 presentations per 1,000 people in Queensland’s Darling Downs and West Moreton Primary Health Network region, to 333 per 1,000 people in the Western NSW Primary Health Network region.

Close to half of all lower urgency presentations (45% or 1.3 million) were for people aged under 25; children under 15 represented 29% (or 852,000) of all lower urgency cases.

Just under half (47%) of all lower urgency ED presentations were after-hours. People aged under 65 were more likely to present after-hours (48% of presentations for this age group) than people aged 65 and over (39% of presentations for this age group).

Mr. Frost noted that not all lower urgency patients could be treated in a primary health care setting.

‘For instance, an elderly person living in a small regional town who fractures their arm may be more appropriately treated at an ED rather than their local GP,’ Mr. Frost said.

‘This person may receive a triage category of 4 or 5 but may have pre-existing health conditions and need diagnostic imaging tests not readily available at the GP.

‘Understanding how and when people use EDs can help improve decision-making, service planning, and care coordination.’

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