Emergency department visits for minor conditions

Number of emergency department visits per 1,000 patients for a minor condition that is unlikely to need hospital admission for treatment. (see data definition)

What do you see?

  • How do ED visit rates for minor conditions differ between the mainly urban zones or PCNs (Calgary and Edmonton) compared to more rural zones or PCNs (North, Central, South)? What might account for these differences?
  • How do ED visit rates for minor conditions differ for patients who see one family doctor for most of their visits (i.e., ‘high continuity’) compared to patients who see multiple family doctors (i.e., ‘low continuity’)?
  • Are ED visit rates for minor conditions changing over time? What might account for this?

Whether you’re a patient, provider, or health system administrator, thinking about why these differences might exist can start conversations and lead to solutions for improved quality of healthcare.

*Data courtesy of Alberta Health Services and Alberta Health

Understanding emergency department visits for minor conditions

This chart is intended to reflect both access to primary care services and choices that patients make about where to seek medical care on short notice. Ideally, Albertans should be able to get treatment for these minor conditions at their family doctor’s office on short notice without going to the emergency department (ED).

A minor condition includes patients who presented with an ED triage score of CTAS 4 (less urgent) or 5 (non-urgent) and were discharged with a diagnosis that is considered to be potentially treatable by a family doctor.

Primary care options for treatment on short notice include:

  • Treatment by the patient’s family doctor.
  • Treatment by another family doctor or team member in the clinic.
  • Treatment by another family doctor in an after-hours clinic. Some communities have after-hours clinics that offer access to a family doctor in the evenings (5 p.m. to 9 p.m.), on weekends and holidays.
  • Treatment by another family doctor in a walk-in clinic.
  • Treatment advice from the Health Link telephone health information service (811). Health Link staff can help patients decide whether self-treatment is possible, if they should see their family doctor or another family doctor in an after-hours or walk-in clinic, or if they should go to an ED. Health Link is a free service that can be accessed across the province by all Albertans.

When patients seek medical care with another family doctor outside of their usual clinic, it is possible that information about these visits may not be shared with their own family doctor. Making sure the patient’s family doctor has a complete record of the patient’s care is very important.

Considerations when viewing the results

  • A goal of primary care is to look for ways to lower ED visit rates for minor conditions. This can help improve the patient experience, reduce the costs related to ED overuse, and reduce overall wait times.
  • ED visit rates for minor conditions tend to be higher in PCNs that are mainly rural compared to PCNs in cities. Family doctors in small communities often work in the ED and may ask patients to visit them in the ED. Patients in these small communities may also choose to visit the ED to see their doctor. This strengthens the rapport between patient and doctor. The ED may be the only option for after-hours care in these communities.

The Health Quality Council of Alberta uses the Alberta Quality Matrix for Health as a way of organizing information and thinking around the complexity of the healthcare system. The information in this chart can be used as input to think and have conversations about primary healthcare in Alberta using the lens of the dimensions of quality shown on the right:


Dimensions of Quality

  • Acceptability
  • Accessibility
  • Appropriateness
  • Effectiveness
  • Efficiency
  • Safety