Extended access to primary care may reduce ER visits

Emergency room sign

Photo credit: Getty/Nils Versemann

One way to reduce the number of patients who seek care in the emergency department for minor problems is to keep primary care practices open for more hours on nights and weekends, according to a new study. 

Based on patient visits that took place from 2011 to 2014, UK researchers discovered that primary care practices that extended hours during weekends and evenings experienced a 26 percent relative reduction in patient-initiated ED visits for minor problems--that is, when compared with patients at practices that provide care during regular hours, according to a study published in PLOS Medicine.

Indeed, for every three appointments booked at a primary care practice, one emergency room visit was avoided, researchers found. And the cost savings associated with fewer visits for minor health concerns at EDs was more than 26 percent, which meant more than $767,000 in savings for the UK National Health Service.

Still, researchers point out that there was no overall fall in visits to the ED.  Further, there’s no definitive proof that extending hours at primary care practices would be cost-effective.

Regardless, the National Health Service will extend primary care hours at practices throughout Greater Manchester, which was the focus of the study.

"Our study suggests that extending opening hours in primary care may be a useful addition to policies aiming to reduce pressures on hospital services, potentially reducing patient-initiated use of the emergency department for minor problems--but at a significant cost," the authors said in a study announcement.