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Publication date: 
October 27, 2021


Healthcare spending in the emergency department (ED) setting has received intense focus from policymakers in the United States (U.S.). Relatively few studies have systematically evaluated ED spending over time or disaggregated ED spending by policy-relevant groups, including health condition, age, sex, and payer to inform these discussions. This study’s objective is to estimate ED spending trends in the U.S. from 2006 to 2016, by age, sex, payer, and across 154 health conditions and assess ED spending per visit over time.

Methods and findings

This observational study utilized the National Emergency Department Sample, a nationally representative sample of hospital-based ED visits in the U.S. to measure healthcare spending for ED care. All spending estimates were adjusted for inflation and presented in 2016 U.S. Dollars. Overall ED spending was $79.2 billion (CI, $79.2 billion-$79.2 billion) in 2006 and grew to $136.6 billion (CI, $136.6 billion-$136.6 billion) in 2016, representing a population-adjusted annualized rate of change of 4.4% (CI, 4.4%-4.5%) as compared to total healthcare spending (1.4% [CI, 1.4%-1.4%]) during that same ten-year period. The percentage of U.S. health spending attributable to the ED has increased from 3.9% (CI, 3.9%-3.9%) in 2006 to 5.0% (CI, 5.0%-5.0%) in 2016. Nearly equal parts of ED spending in 2016 was paid by private payers (49.3% [CI, 49.3%-49.3%]) and public payers (46.9% [CI, 46.9%-46.9%]), with the remainder attributable to out-of-pocket spending (3.9% [CI, 3.9%-3.9%]). In terms of key groups, the majority of ED spending was allocated among females (versus males) and treat-and-release patients (versus those hospitalized); those between age 20–44 accounted for a plurality of ED spending. Road injuries, falls, and urinary diseases witnessed the highest levels of ED spending, accounting for 14.1% (CI, 13.1%-15.1%) of total ED spending in 2016. ED spending per visit also increased over time from $660.0 (CI, $655.1-$665.2) in 2006 to $943.2 (CI, $934.3-$951.6) in 2016, or at an annualized rate of 3.4% (CI, 3.3%-3.4%).


Though ED spending accounts for a relatively small portion of total health system spending in the U.S., ED spending is sizable and growing. Understanding which diseases are driving this spending is helpful for informing value-based reforms that can impact overall health care costs.


Woody Scott K, Liu A, Chen C, Kaldjian AS, Sabatini AK, Duber HC, Dieleman JL. Healthcare spending in U.S. emergency departments by health condition, 2006–2016. PLoS One. 27 October 2021. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0258182.