A method for grouping emergency department visits by severity and complexity

B. Jason Theiling*, Kendrick V. Kennedy, Alexander T. Limkakeng, Pratik Manandhar, Alaatin Erkanli, Stephen R. Pitts

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Introduction: Triage functions to quickly prioritize care and sort patients by anticipated resource needs. Despite widespread use of the Emergency Severity Index (ESI), there is still no universal standard for emergency department (ED) triage. Thus, it can be difficult to objectively assess national trends in ED acuity and resource requirements. We sought to derive an ESI from National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS) survey items (NHAMCS-ESI) and to assess the performance of this index with respect to stratifying outcomes, including hospital admission, waiting times, and ED length of stay (LOS). Methods: We used data from the 2010-2015 NHAMCS, to create a measure of ED visit complexity based on variables within NHAMCS. We used NHAMCS data on chief complaint, vitals, resources used, interventions, and pain level to group ED visits into five levels of acuity using a stepwise algorithm that mirrored ESI. In addition, we examined associations of NHAMCS-ESI with typical indicators of acuity such as waiting time, LOS, and disposition. The NHAMCS-ESI categorization was also compared against the “immediacy” variable across all of these outcomes. Visit counts used weighted scores to estimate national levels of ED visits. Results: The NHAMCS ED visits represent an estimated 805,726,000 ED visits over this time period. NHAMCS-ESI categorized visits somewhat evenly, with most visits (42.5%) categorized as a level 3. The categorization pattern is distinct from that of the “immediacy” variable within NHAMCS. Of admitted patients, 89% were categorized as NHAMCS-ESI level 2-3. Median ED waiting times increased as NHAMCS-ESI levels decreased in acuity (from approximately 14 minutes to 25 minutes). Median LOS decreased as NHAMCS-ESI decreased from almost 200 minutes for level 1 patients to nearly 80 minutes for level 5 patients. Conclusion: We derived an objective tool to measure an ED visit's complexity and resource use. This tool can be validated and used to compare complexity of ED visits across hospitals and regions, and over time.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1147-1155
Number of pages9
JournalWestern Journal of Emergency Medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


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