Inappropriately Timed Pediatric Orthopaedic Referrals From the Emergency Department Result in Unnecessary Appointments and Financial Burden for Patients

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Musculoskeletal injuries are among the most common reasons for emergency department (ED) visits in the pediatric population. Many such injuries can be managed with a single follow-up outpatient visit. However, untimely (ie, premature) referrals by emergency physicians to orthopaedic surgeons are common and may inadvertently create need for a second visit, generating unnecessary expenditures. We sought to elucidate the cost of premature musculoskeletal follow-up visits to the patients, families, and the health care system.


We performed a retrospective review of pediatric patients with acute musculoskeletal injuries referred from our ED (without a formal orthopaedic consult) to our outpatient clinic. Patients were retrospectively reviewed in a consecutive fashion. The appropriateness of the recommended follow-up time interval was determined for each patient, and the direct and indirect cost of the inappropriate services were calculated utilizing a combination of traditional cost accounting techniques and time-driven activity-based costing. The characteristics of patients with appropriate and untimely follow-up referrals were compared.


Two hundred consecutive referrals from the ED were reviewed. Overall, 96.5% of the follow-up visits recommended by the ED were premature, which led 106 (53%) patients to require a second visit to complete their clinical care. Patients who required a second visit were significantly younger (P=0.005), more likely to be male (P=0.042), more likely to have a fracture (P<0.001), and less likely to have a sprain (P<0.001) or dislocation/subluxation (P<0.001). Over 40% of second visits were accounted for by 3 diagnoses (distal radius buckle fractures, nondisplaced Salter-Harris 1 fractures of the ankle, and buckle fractures of the finger). Across the whole cohort, the total financial impact of untimely visits was $36,265.78, representing an average cost of $342.93 per patient.


Untimely referrals for follow-up of acute pediatric musculoskeletal conditions are very common and represent a significant financial burden to patients, families, and the health care system. Over 40% of unnecessary visits resulted from just 3 diagnoses. Improved orthopaedic follow-up guidelines, particularly for these readily recognizable conditions, and feedback to referring providers may reduce poorly timed clinic visits and decrease costs in the treatment of common orthopaedic injuries in pediatric patients.

Level of Evidence:

Level III.

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