LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The rate of visits to U.S. hospital emergency rooms by senior citizens grew faster than that of any other age group between 1993 and 2003, straining the country’s already overcrowded emergency care system, according to a study published on Wednesday.
The research from George Washington University also found the rate of emergency room visits by older blacks was rising at an alarming rate.
The reasons behind seniors’ accelerated visit rates were not immediately clear.
Researchers said the trend could have been driven by health-care advances that have resulted in people living longer with chronic medical issues. It could also have been related to difficulty finding timely primary care, they said.
“Seniors are using the emergency department more and more frequently, and given the needs of this population and the nature of their medical problems, the current state of overcrowding is likely to continue to escalate dramatically,” said Dr. Mary Pat McKay, a study co-author from the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington.
The researchers, who published their findings in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, said a review of hospital data from 1993 to 2003 showed a 34 percent increase in emergency room visits by people aged 65 to 74.
By comparison, there was little change in visit rates among people younger than the age of 21 from 1993 to 2003. The rate of visits was up 19 percent for individuals aged 22 to 49 and 16 percent for people aged 50 to 64.
The authors said seniors’ additional emergency room visits did not appear to be driven by frivolous complaints.
McKay said she was surprised the data showed a widening gap between the rates of black and white seniors seeking emergency care.
Emergency visits by black people aged 65 to 74 rose by the greatest rate, nearly doubling during the 11-year study period to 77 visits per 100 persons. In comparison, the visit rate among whites of the same age group was up 26 percent to 36 visits per 100 persons.
“That there is a racial disparity didn’t surprise me. What surprised me is that it’s getting worse,” she said.
The study’s authors said more research was needed to pinpoint the reasons driving the differences.
They said the higher prevalence of diabetes and hypertension in the black community may be a factor.
They also noted that nearly twice as many young blacks lack health insurance — a problem that worsens among the poor.
People who were uninsured before becoming eligible for the U.S. government’s Medicare health coverage at age 65 are more likely to have serious health problems if they could not afford to get needed care for chronic illnesses.
Whatever the cause, the study’s authors estimated that visits by people aged 65 to 74 could nearly double to 11.7 million by 2013 from 6.4 million in 2003 if the trend in emergency room visit rates continues.
“The system is broken and the point of the study is that it’s going to get worse,” said McKay.
Editing by Peter Cooney