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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Pediatric Emergency Department: A Substitute for Primary Care?


Objectives: Pediatric emergency department (PED) patients often present with non-urgent complaints. We attempted to estimate the perceived degree of urgency of the visit and to identify reasons for seeking non-urgent care in the PED by patients and parents. Methods: A prospective survey was completed by parents (for children 17 and younger) and patients (18-21) presenting to a suburban academic PED that sees approximately 15,000 patients per year. A convenience sample of participants was enrolled. Results: Three hundred and five of 334 surveys were completed (91% response rate) over a 3-month period. Twenty-four percent of the chief complaints were perceived by those surveyed as emergent or possibly life-threatening, 23% were felt to be very urgent, and 52% were deemed somewhat urgent or minor. Twenty-five percent of those with minor or somewhat urgent complaints arrived by ambulance. Weekend visits and minority race correlated with a lower degree of perceived urgency. Overall, 79% of those surveyed identified a primary care provider (PCP) for themselves or their child. Of those, 54% had attempted to contact the PCP prior to coming to the PED. Six percent of those who attempted to reach their primary care providers were able to contact them and 52% were told to come to the PED. Conclusions: More than half of patients and parents presenting to the PED believed they had minor or somewhat urgent complaints. While the majority of patients have a regular provider, limited access to timely primary care and convenience may make the PED a more attractive care option than primary care for many parents and patients.

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