Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Nonurgent patients in the emergency department? A French formula to prevent misuse

Stéphanie Gentile1*, Pascal Vignally1, Anne-Claire Durand1, Sabina Gainotti1, Roland Sambuc2 and Patrick Gerbeaux1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, Marseille, France

2 Emergency Department of University Hospital, Marseille, France

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BMC Health Services Research 2010, 10:66  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-10-66

Published: 15 March 2010



Overcrowding in emergency department (EDs) is partly due to the use of EDs by nonurgent patients. In France, the authorities responded to the problem by creating primary care units (PCUs): alternative structures located near hospitals. The aims of the study were to assess the willingness of nonurgent patients to be reoriented to a PCU and to collect the reasons that prompted them to accept or refuse.


We carried out a cross sectional survey on patients' use of EDs. The study was conducted in a French hospital ED. Patients were interviewed about their use of health services, ED visits, referrals, activities of daily living, and insurance coverage status. Patients' medical data were also collected.


85 patients considered nonurgent by a triage nurse were asked to respond to a questionnaire. Sex ratio was 1.4; mean age was 36.3 +/- 11.7 years.

Most patients went to the ED autonomously (76%); one third (31.8%) had consulted a physician. The main reasons for using the ED were difficulty to get an appointment with a general practitioner (22.3%), feelings of pain (68.5%), and the availability of medical services in the ED, like imaging, laboratory tests, and drug prescriptions (37.6%). Traumatisms and wounds were the main medical reasons for going to the ED (43.5%).

More than two-thirds of responders (68%) were willing to be reoriented towards PCUs. In the multivariate analysis, only employment and the level of urgency perceived by the patient were associated with the willingness to accept reorientation. Employed persons were 4.5 times more likely to accept reorientation (OR = 4.5 CI (1.6-12.9)). Inversely, persons who perceived a high level of urgency were the least likely to accept reorientation (OR = 0.9 CI (0.8-0.9).


Our study provides information on the willingness of ED patients to accept reorientation and shows the limits of its feasibility. Alternative structures such as PCUs near the ED seem to respond appropriately to the growing demands of nonurgent patients. Reorientation, however, will be successful only if the new structures adapt their opening hours to the needs of nonurgent patients and if their physicians can perform specific technical skills.