Background — Access to primary care outside of regular working hours is limited in many countries. This study investigates the relation between the after-hours premium, an incentive for primary care physicians to provide services after hours, and less-urgent visits to the emergency department in Ontario, Canada.
Methods — We analyzed a retrospective cohort of a random sample of Ontario residents from April 2002 to March 2006, and a subcohort of patients followed from April 2005 to March 2016. We linked patient and primary care physician data with emergency department visit data. We used fixed-effects regression models to analyze the association between the introduction of the after-hours premium, as well as subsequent increases in the value of the premium, and the number of monthly emergency department visits.
Results — The sample consisted of 586 534 patients between 2002 and 2006, and 201 594 patients from 2005 to 2016. After controlling for patient and physician characteristics, seasonality and time-invariant patient confounding factors, introduction of the after-hours premium was associated with a reduction of 1.26 less-urgent visits to the emergency department per 1000 patients per month (95% confidence interval −1.48 to −1.04). Most of this reduction was observed in after-hours visits. Sensitivity analysis showed that the monthly reduction in less-urgent visits to the emergency department was in the range of −1.24 to −1.16 per 1000 patients. Subsequent increases in the after-hours premium were associated with a small reduction in less-urgent visits to the emergency department.
Interpretation — Ontario’s experience suggests that incentivizing physicians to improve access to after-hours primary care reduces some less-urgent visits to the emergency department. Other jurisdictions may consider incentives to limit less-urgent visits to the emergency department.
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