Emergency room visits declined during last year's Olympic men's gold medal hockey game, Canadian researchers have found.

The study in Tuesday's issue of the journal Open Medicine compared 99,447 emergency visits in Ontario over six Sundays before and after the big game day  — the most popular television broadcast in Canadian history — to game day itself.

During the Sunday telecast of the gold medal game, there was a "significant reduction" in hourly visits to 647 from 783 or about 136 fewer patients per hour of the broadcast, the researchers found.

"Mass media events can influence patient preferences and thereby lead to a decrease in emergency department visits," the study's principal investigator, Dr. Donald Redelmeier of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto and co-author Marian Vermeulen concluded.

Gold medal viewing

  • The Olympic men’s ice hockey gold medal game received record levels of public attention, with a total of 16.6 million Canadian viewers (equal to about 50 per cent of the entire population).
  • For perspective, the Super Bowl telecast had 6.0 million Canadian viewers and the World Cup Final telecast had 5.1 million Canadian viewers.

The study is not about the Olympic event itself but the other 365 days of the year, Redelmeier said.

"Emergency department overcrowding is often blamed on suboptimal physicians, administrators, or computer systems. Our study suggests that another large contributor is patient preferences," said Redelmeier, who is also a senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. 

At face value, the data suggest that perhaps one in six emergency department visits reflects decisions by patients, the researchers said.

The greatest declines were among men who were middle-class and middle-aged, but there were also reductions among women and all income levels.

The largest reductions were for less urgent patients such as:

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Joint pain.
  • Trauma.

There was a small increase in cardiac emergencies during the game.