News/Media Center

July 21, 2003

Overusing our ERs puts burden on system
- by Ralph H. Weber, M.D., Vice president, medical affairs, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas

Ever wonder why emergency room waiting areas always seem filled with people waiting for hours to get care? One of the major reasons is that millions of Americans each year use ERs for routine medical care, not for true emergencies. Last year, there were about 10 million visits to ERs for non-emergency care.

In Kansas, the average emergency room visit costs around $300, while the average charge for a visit to the doctor’s office is around $55. Those figures do not include the additional costs of tests, lab work or procedures that might be necessary to make a diagnosis or to give treatment. Unnecessary ER visits can delay care for people with true emergencies, and raises the cost of health care for all of us.

On top of the huge waste of money and medical resources, the true tragedy is this: the ER is about the worst place to get routine medical care. First, you use the valuable time of a specialist who is trained for trauma situations. Second, you lose out on the opportunity to build a relationship with your doctor or discuss preventive measures. Third, your immediate, acute need is often treated without the benefit of the knowledge of your health history, and with little opportunity for follow-up.

In a true emergency, you shouldn’t hesitate to go to the ER. If possible, call ahead to let them know you are coming. Also, call your doctor’s office so he or she can share your important medical information with the ER staff. A true emergency involves a medical condition of recent onset and severity that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the absence of immediate medical attention could result in one of the following:

  • Placing the health of the individual in serious jeopardy.
  • Serious impairment to bodily function.
  • Serious dysfunction of any bodily organ or part.

However, if your condition doesn’t meet this criteria, call your doctor’s office or answering service first. Allow him or her to decide if you should treat your symptoms with self-care, visit his or her office, or go to the emergency room.

One of the best ways to reduce health care costs is to limit trips to the emergency room to true emergencies – urgent or life-threatening medical problems – and build a relationship with a primary care physician for routine care. It’s a healthy way to keep health care affordable.


Ralph H. Weber, MD, is vice president of medical affairs for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas. He spent 10 years in private practice in Salina before joining the health insurer in 1988. He was promoted to vice president in 1990.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. BCBSKS is the state's largest health insurer, serving all Kansas counties except Johnson and Wyandotte.