ASCO 2017: Many Emergency Department Visits Among Patients With Cancer Appear Preventable

Key Points

  • Slightly more than half of these emergency department visits—53%—were related to symptoms that could be managed with timely care in an outpatient setting. The share of potentially preventable visits rose to 70% when the standard was expanded to include other common patient complaints, as well as symptoms associated with chronic health conditions.
  • The most common reason cancer patients visited an emergency department was due to pain—27% of overall visits—and at a median cost per visit of $1,127.
  • The median cost per visit of preventable cancer-related symptoms was $1,047 compared to a median cost per visit of $335 for symptoms related to a chronic health condition.

Among patients with cancer, as many as 53% of emergency department visits that do not require admission could be avoided with better symptom management and greater availability of outpatient care tailored to their needs, according to a new study from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. These findings were presented by Panattoni et al at the 2017 ASCO Annual Meeting (Abstract 6505).

Although a number of studies have addressed the prevalence of emergency department visits among cancer patients, this is the first to systematically identify potentially preventable visits during treatment. Laura Panattoni, PhD, a staff scientist at the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research, or HICOR, and colleagues followed patients with solid tumors whose treatment included chemotherapy, radiation, or both in 13 Western Washington counties.

“My hope is that seeing this data will promote innovative thinking and investment in how oncology teams manage patient symptoms,” Dr. Panattoni said. “Managing nausea, pain, dehydration, diarrhea, and other symptoms in an outpatient setting has great potential to improve patient experience and decrease the cost of care.”

Major Findings

The study began with data from 5,853 commercially insured patients who were 18 years or older, diagnosed with a solid tumor and treated with chemotherapy, radiation, or both. Out of that population, 27%, or 1,581 patients, visited the emergency department without being admitted in the year after starting treatment.

Dr. Panattoni and her colleagues tallied 2,400 emergency department visits by these 1,581 cancer patients and then analyzed whether they could have been prevented. Using a list of symptoms that federal health authorities identified as preventable, combined with symptoms targeted by patient-reported outcome tools, the researchers found that slightly more than half of these emergency department visits—53%—were related to symptoms that could be managed with timely care in an outpatient setting.

The share of potentially preventable visits rose to 70% when Dr. Panattoni expanded the standard to include other common patient complaints, as well as symptoms associated with chronic health conditions.

“At a time when federal authorities and private payers are linking insurance payments to hospital quality measures, this study points to the importance of developing methods to accurately identify those emergency department visits that are preventable vs those that are appropriate,” Dr. Panattoni commented.

The study revealed that the most common reason cancer patients visited an emergency department was due to pain. In fact, visits due to pain amounted to 27% of overall visits and had a median cost per visit of $1,127. Fever and difficulty breathing were the next two most common reasons that brought patients to the emergency department, each at 6%.

Overall, the study indicated a higher median cost per visit for cancer patients compared with the cost of visits as a result of other chronic health conditions. The median cost per visit of preventable cancer-related symptoms was $1,047 compared to a median cost per visit of $335 for symptoms related to a chronic health condition.

“This represents a rare opportunity to reduce costs and improve patient outcomes,” said Dr. Panattoni, noting that investment in sharing best practices and new models of care will likely be necessary to make a significant difference.

One limitation of the study is that it did not include data from patients insured through Medicare. The team expects to receive Medicare data in the coming months and incorporate it into these findings.

Improving Care

Dr. Panattoni pointed to oncology medical home models and cancer-specific urgent care centers as an approach better suited to addressing patient symptoms. Such models strive to deliver value-based care, a departure from the historic focus in oncology on volume-based care. They include features such as expanded hours, same-day visits, electronic outreach to patients, and team care.

Dr. Panattoni and her HICOR colleagues plan to focus next on the financial burden patients experience through out-of-pocket costs due to preventable emergency department visits, which could particularly affect patients on high-deductible insurance plans. Including data from more diverse socioeconomic and geographic groups, along with following patients for longer periods, would make the data more applicable to a larger population.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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