NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – In an evaluation of 633 emergency department visits following bariatric surgery in Michigan over a 1-year period, the vast majority were for complaints amenable to a phone call consultation or treatment in a lower-acuity setting, but few patients would have been satisfied with this type of management, according to an evaluation based on patient interviews presented at Obesity Week 2017.

“Unfortunately, 91% of the patients said that there was nothing the surgical team could have done that would have helped avoid the ED visit,” reported Haley Stevens, quality improvement coordinator at the Michigan Bariatric Surgery Collaborative, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Unnecessary ED visits in the immediate postoperative period following bariatric surgery are common and a source of increased costs, according to a variety of evidence cited by Ms. Stevens. The purpose of this study was to document patient circumstances and rationale for an ED visit with the ultimate goal of considering new strategies to provide alternatives to care.

The 633 ED visits followed 7,617 bariatric surgeries for a rate of 8.3%. According to Ms. Stevens, this is consistent with the rates of 5%-11% reported previously. Based on clinically abstracted data and patient interviews conducted by trained nurses in a sample of patients involved in these ED visits, it was estimated that 62% were made without any attempt to first contact the surgical team, she reported at an annual meeting presented by the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery and The Obesity Society.

In the interviews, a variety of reasons were offered for not first contacting the surgical team, according to Ms. Stevens. Most commonly, patients reported that a sense of urgency drove them to the ED. In 18% of cases, the complaint occurred after office hours, leading the patient to believe that the ED was the only option. Another 16% of patients reported that calling the surgeon simply did not occur to them.

“When interviewed, many patients considered the visit necessary and unavoidable even after learning subsequently that the symptoms were not serious,” Ms. Stevens reported.

The primary reasons for the ED visit were nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain, which accounted for 50% of the visits. The next most common reasons were chest pain (8%) and concerns regarding the incision (7%). Only 30% of the ED visits ultimately resulted in a hospital admission, but 60% of the visits resulted in administration of intravenous fluids. Thirty-eight percent of ED visits resulted in oral or intravenous therapy for pain.

Based on the interviews, most patients reported that they visited the ED because they wanted an immediate evaluation of their symptoms, according to Ms. Stevens. She said that the goal in most cases was simply obtaining reassurance. While better patient education about symptoms and recovery might have circumvented patient concerns about nonurgent complaints, Ms. Stevens also suggested that visits to a lower-acuity center, such as an urgent care facility, might provide a lower-cost alternative for reassurance or simple treatments.

As this study represents the first in a series to guide a quality improvement initiative, Ms. Stevens acknowledged that the best solution to reducing unnecessary ED visits is unclear, but she did suggest that multiple strategies might be needed. Based on this and previously published studies evaluating this issue “there is no silver bullet” for reducing ED visits, Ms. Stevens said.

In an animated discussion that followed presentation of these results, others recounting efforts to reduce ED visits following bariatric surgery emphasized the importance of follow-up phone calls or home visits within 2 or 3 days of surgery. According to several of those who commented, these steps allow early identification of problems while providing the type of reassurance that can prevent unnecessary ED visits.

The average cost of an ED visit following bariatric surgery is approximately $1,300, according to Ms. Stevens. For this and other reasons, strategies to reduce ED visits are needed, but Ms. Stevens cautioned that the solutions might not be simple. Based on data from this study, the key may be providing patients with a clear route to the reassurance they need to avoid seeking care for nonurgent issues.

Ms. Stevens reports no financial relationships relevant to this topic.


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