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Study: Emergency rooms used as "family doctor'

Hospital emergency rooms have become the family doctor for too many Americans, the government said Wednesday. Fifty-five percent of the 90-million people who went to emergency rooms in 1992 were not in urgent need of care.

Nearly as many of them complained of coughs and sore throats as those who had chest pain that could signal a heart attack, the National Center for Health Statistics said.

Almost 4 percent of the patients had ear infections, the most common diagnosis by emergency room physicians.

The very old were the biggest users of emergency rooms, but most of the time they came for life-threatening illnesses or injuries.

Sixty-one percent of the emergency room visits by children and young adults were for problems that did not require attention immediately or within a few hours.

"This study shows how emergency rooms have become the family doctor for too many Americans," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. "Emergency rooms are not intended to deliver routine medical care."

Shalala said it costs three times more to treat someone in an emergency room than in a doctor's office.

The Clinton administration contends that its health reform proposal would unclog emergency rooms by guaranteeing that all Americans have health coverage and a regular doctor or clinic.

The statistics center, which surveyed 437 hospitals, estimated there were 89.8-million emergency room visits in 1992, or 36 visits for every 100 U.S. residents.

Fifty-nine percent were for illnesses and 35 percent for injuries. But even most of the injured were not considered in urgent need of care.

Linda F. McCaig, a health statistician who wrote the study, also said blacks were 1.6 times more likely than whites to use emergency rooms.

Hospitals, by federal law, must treat anyone who comes in with a genuine medical emergency. That includes illegal aliens, who would not be covered by the Clinton health plan.

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