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West J Emerg Med. 2018 Nov;19(6):926-933. doi: 10.5811/westjem.2018.9.39369. Epub 2018 Oct 18.

Characterizing Highly Frequent Users of a Large Canadian Urban Emergency Department.

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University of Ottawa, Department of Emergency Medicine, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
University of Ottawa, Department of Undergraduate Medicine, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.



Highly frequent users (HFU) of the emergency department (ED) are a poorly defined population. This study describes patient and visit characteristics for Canadian ED HFU and patient subgroups with mental illness, substance misuse, or ≥ 30 yearly ED visits.


We reviewed health records from a random selection of adult patients whose visit frequency comprised the 99th percentile of yearly ED visits to The Ottawa Hospital. We excluded scheduled repeat ED assessments. We collected the following: 1) patient characteristics - age, sex, and comorbidities; and 2) ED visit characteristics - diagnosis category, length of stay, presentation time, consultation services, and final disposition. Two reviewers collected data, and we performed an inter-rater review to measure agreement.


We analyzed 3,164 ED visits for 261 patients in all subgroups overall. Within the HFU random selection, mean age was 53.4 ± 1.3, and 55.6% were female. Most patients had a fixed address (88.9%), and family physician (87.2%). Top ED diagnoses included musculoskeletal pain (9.6%), alcohol intoxication (8.5%), and abdominal pain (8.4%). Allied health (social work, geriatric emergency medicine, or community care access centre) was consulted for 5.9% of visits. In 52.7% of these cases, allied health services were not available at the time of presentation.


HFU are a complex population who represent a marked proportion of annual ED visits. Our data indicate that there are opportunities to improve the current approaches to care. Future work examining ED-based screening and multi-disciplinary approaches for HFU may help reduce frequent ED presentations, and better serve this vulnerable population.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

Conflict of interest statement

Conflicts of Interest: By the WestJEM article submission agreement, all authors are required to disclose all affiliations, funding sources and financial or management relationships that could be perceived as potential sources of bias. This research study was internally funded by the Department of Emergency Medicine, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. There were no conflicts of interest.

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