A study by the University of Alberta suggests after-hours medical clinics can reduce demands on stressed hospital emergency wards — if the clinics have enough room.

"There was quite a strong correlation between a service offered outside the hospital that could ultimately influence how frequently people were using the emergency department," said David Jones, a PhD student at the university's school of public health.


Alberta is pushing to cut ER wait times. A new study suggests after-hours clinics can reduce ER congestion, but not necessarily waits.

Reducing wait times in hospital emergency rooms has been an issue across the country.

The study looked at Leduc, a city of about 22,000 just south of Edmonton. It attempted to address the problem in 2006 by opening an after-hours clinic that ran from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Jones examined emergency room admittance statistics for 14 months before the clinic opened and another 14 months after. He concluded that visits to the local hospital's emergency ward dropped 40 per cent after the clinic opened. That decline was in cases considered semi-urgent such as bruising or stomach or joint pain.

"It makes intuitive sense," Jones said.

Previous studies have been inconclusive on the subject. But Jones suggests that's because they focused on small clinics in large cities, where the clinics didn't have enough capacity to make a difference.

"The mixed results might be because you're trying to put an intervention into a population of a larger size," Jones said. "What I argue is that the intervention would have to be larger in a larger centre."

Jones's study didn't examine the effect on wait times for people that did go to emergency wards.

The issue of after-hours clinics is hotly debated among health-care experts. Some feel they can relieve pressure on emergency rooms, while others say they that promote poor-quality primary care and that ERs are actually less expensive ways of treating patients with semi-urgent issues.

The Leduc clinic was run through a partnership between physicians and Alberta Health Services.

Jones's study was published in the Journal of Primary Care and Community Health.