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One in Seven Adults Uses the ER for Medical Care

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AHRQ News and Numbers

Release date: April 4, 2006

Nearly 31 million people, or about 14.1 percent of the nation's adult population, were seen in hospital emergency rooms in 2003, according the Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS).

There is some concern among policymakers regarding the cost and health implications of emergency room overuse and their inappropriate use—particularly for those persons with limited access to other ambulatory care.

  • Overall, about $1 of every $10 spent on ambulatory care was used to pay for emergency room (ER) visits.
  • MEPS found that a total of $29.3 billion was paid in 2003 for ER care by private insurers, Medicare, Medicaid, patients, and miscellaneous sources, compared with the $268.7 billion in total expenditures paid for ambulatory care provided in hospital outpatient departments and office-based settings.
  • About 7 percent of all ER visits in the same year involved surgery. The average expense for these visits was $904.
  • Another 64 percent of all ER visits required lab work, sonograms, X-rays, CAT scans or other special services. The average expense for these visits was $637.
  • The average expense for ER visits that did not require surgery, tests, or other special services was $302.

MEPS collects information each year from a nationally representative sample of U.S. households among the civilian, non-institutionalized population regarding their health care use, health care expenses, access to services, health status, and the quality of the health care obtained. MEPS is a unique government survey because of the degree of detail provided by the data, and in the ability to link data on health services spending and health insurance to demographic, employment, health status, and other characteristics of individuals and families.

This AHRQ News and Numbers summary is based on statistics in Expenses for a Hospital Emergency Room Visit, 2003, MEPS Statistical Brief No. 111, which can be found on AHRQ's Web site at [PDF Help]

For more information, or to speak with a MEPS data expert about the findings, please contact Bob Isquith at or call (301) 427-1539.


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