In 2002, over 110 million people sought medical care at a hospital emergency department (ED). While most people associate ED visits with major health events and traumas, the reality is that many people go to EDs with non-life threatening, non-emergency problems.

The most common reasons for visiting EDs are abdominal pain, chest pain and fever. The most common diagnoses in EDs are contusions, acute upper respiratory infections, and open wounds to the head. Many of these symptoms and diagnoses can indicate medical emergencies, but they often do not.

In an effort to determine whether ED volume is affected during major sporting events, researchers in Boston studied the rate of ED visits during the 2004 Major League Baseball (MLB) postseason, in which the Boston Red Sox were playing. They found that significantly fewer people visited the ED during televised games with the largest viewing audiences.

About the Study

For this study, researchers used data from six greater Boston area EDs during 11 Red Sox games played in the 2004 MLB postseason. The games included the seven American League Championship Series (ALCS) games played against the New York Yankees and the four World Series (WS) games played against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The researchers compared hourly emergency department volume during the games to average overall volume. To quantify the magnitude of viewership, the researchers obtained the Nielsen household ratings for each game.

The Findings

On average, 1,068,000 of 2,392,000 total television households in the greater Boston area tuned in to the 2004 MLB postseason.

The researchers found that as Nielsen ratings increased, trips to the ED decreased. Specifically, the Nielsen ratings were relatively low in ALCS games 3 and 4, when the Red Sox were losing and facing probable elimination. During these games, ED visits were about 15% above average. But when the Red Sox began a comeback against the Yankees in ALCS games 5 and 6, Nielsen ratings began to rise and ED visits began to decline. As the Red Sox won the American League championship and the 2004 World Series in the ALCS final game 7 and WS final game 4, Nielsen ratings were at their highest and ED visits were about 15% below average.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings suggest that major sporting events can have a significant impact on the volume of ED visits. On a broader scale, this study indicates that a significant portion of ED visits may be discretionary and perhaps unnecessary, which increases health care costs and hinder care for people with true emergencies.

So when should you go to the emergency room? During life-threatening emergencies, going to the ED can save your life. If you feel your medical problem requires urgent care, dial 9-1-1 or go to the ED promptly. But if you feel your situation can be treated at home until you can schedule a visit with your doctor, it may be wise to avoid the ED.

If you’re a baseball fan, perhaps this simple test will help you decide. It is the bottom of the ninth in the final game of the World Series and the score is tie. Would you go to the emergency department? If the answer is yes, get going!