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Emergency department demand up 37 per cent

New research has busted the myth that older people or less urgent cases are clogging up EDs.

Demand for public emergency department care across Australia increased by 37 per cent throughout the decade ending in early 2010.

This is the finding of a Queensland University of Technology study published in the latest issue of Emergency Medicine Australasia, the journal of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine.

"The growth in demand for ED services is a partial contributor to the crowding being experienced in EDs in Australia," Professor Gerry FitzGerald from QUT's School of Public Health said.

"This growth in demand exceeds general population growth."

The researchers said demand had been consistently increasing over the past decade in all locations except the ACT. They said the ED usage rate in Australia, currently 331 per 1000 persons, had been growing at an average of 1.8 per cent per annum over the past decade.

These are some of the preliminary findings of a three-year research project being funded by the Australian Research Council and the Queensland Ambulance Service.

The researchers will now work on identifying the factors underlying these increasing usage rates, by analysing in detail the characteristics of users and their reasons for using EDs and ambulance services.

Initial analysis has dispelled some common myths about the reasons for high ED demand.

The so-called "inappropriate users" or "GP" patients have been commonly blamed for increasing demand for ED services. However, FitzGerald said there was no evidence that increased demand was due to overuse by patients with low-acuity, or less urgency.

"The growth is among patients in genuine need of emergency healthcare," he said.

FitzGerald said it is also commonly assumed that the elderly are more likely to require health services, including emergency health services, than younger people.

"However, the ageing population might not necessarily explain the whole trend of increasing ED usage. For instance, although the ACT had the highest growth - 7.65 per cent - in the number of persons aged 85 and over, its ED presentation rates did not change significantly," he said.

The results of this ongoing research may result in alternative service delivery models that might appropriately and safely manage future demand.

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