Nearly 80 percent of hospitalized heart failure patients come to the emergency room, illuminating the burden the condition plays on healthcare systems, according to a new study in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality & Outcomes.

More than 5 million Americans are living with heart failure. The more than 1 million hospitalizations for that condition amount to an estimated direct cost of $31 billion annually.

Researchers analyzed data on more than 113,000 patients with more than 175,000 emergency room visits for heart failure in California and Florida hospitals in 2010-11. During the one-year follow-up, more than a third of patients had two or more ER visits – considered “frequent” visits.

Those more likely to have “frequent” ER visits for heart failure were:

  • Non-Hispanic blacks
  • Hispanics
  • Medicaid-insured
  • People with lower income

Heart failure patients with frequent ER visits accounted for more than half of all heart failure ER visits. More than 86 percent of these ER visits led to hospitalizations, accounting for more than half of all heart failure hospitalizations.

Researchers said if recurrent ER visits could be prevented, more than 62,000 ER visits and more than 53,000 hospitalizations could have been saved in the two states during this time. In Florida alone, that could have amounted to a savings of more than $1.06 billion in healthcare costs.

Many emergency room visits for heart failure are considered preventable through better management of patient risks and education. These new findings highlight the importance of improved research, risk assessment and secondary prevention for providers, as well as the need for policy strategies that reduce healthcare utilization for heart failure in an already stressed healthcare system, study authors said.