Rural emergency rooms frequented by the poor and uninsured

A new report from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality shows that low-income adults accounted for 56 percent of the 8 million rural emergency room visits in 2008. In nonrural hospitals, low-income adults accounted for only 30 percent of emergency room visits. According to the report, 44 percent of adult visits to rural emergency departments were paid for by Medicaid, were uncompensated, or billed to uninsured patients. Only 31 percent were paid for by private health plans. In nonrural hospitals, 37 percent of adult visits were paid for by private health plans, and 42 percent were paid for by Medicaid, uncompensated or billed to uninsured patients.

Emergency business is mainly just that for rural hospitals. Only 8.3 percent of rural emergency department visits resulted in a hospital admission, compared to 16 percent of non-rural emergency department visits.

The report also noted the lack of rural hospitals with trauma-level emergency departments. Nationally, only 2.4 of rural emergency departments held any level of trauma designation. Among non-rural emergency departments, 35.5 percent had a trauma designation. Read more here.

In Kentucky, approximately 75 of the state’s 130 hospitals are in rural areas, according to the Kentucky Hospital Association. The state has been working to improve its trauma system and will soon begin designating level IV trauma centers in some of the state’s smallest hospitals, said Dick Bartlett, emergency preparedness and trauma coordinator for the Kentucky Hospital Association. Already, Marcum & Wallace in Irvine and Livingston Hospital in have met requirements for the designation and will be certified, once the state approves the new level IV designation. (The national report focused on levels I-III; in Kentucky, level I-III are certified by the American College of Surgeons.)

The new designation is part of an effort by Kentucky to improve trauma care statewide. Having a level IV trauma center means better trauma care for Kentuckians injured in rural areas, Bartlett said. “It improves your potential for survival,” he said. These hospitals have committed to providing certain levels of staffing, including a board-certified emergency room physician, and to following protocols to quickly decide whether a patient can be treated at their facility or if a patient should be transported to another, higher-level facility.

A map showing Kentucky’s current trauma hospitals and those hospitals seeking trauma certification is available here.

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