Provision of high-quality care to acutely ill and injured children is a challenge to US hospitals because many have low pediatric volume. Delineating national trends in definitive pediatric acute care would inform improvements in care.
We analyzed emergency department (ED) visits by children between 2008 and 2016 in the Nationwide Emergency Department Sample, a weighted sample of 20% of EDs nationally. For each hospital annually, we determined the Hospital Capability Index (HCI) to determine the frequency of definitive acute care, defined as hospitalization instead of ED transfer. Hospitals were classified annually according to 2008 HCI quartiles to understand shifts in pediatric capability.
The national median HCI was 0.06 (interquartile range: 0.01–0.17) in 2008 and 0.02 (interquartile range: 0.00–0.09) in 2016 (P < .001). Definitive care became less common regardless of annual pediatric volume, urban or rural designation, or condition frequency. In 2016, 2171 EDs (49.0%) had HCIs <0.013, which represented the lowest 25% of ED HCIs in 2008. Pediatric visits to EDs categorized in the bottom 2008 capability quartile more than doubled from 2.5 million in 2008 to 5.3 million in 2016. Despite decreasing capability, centers with higher annual pediatric volume and urban centers provided more definitive inpatient care and had fewer inter-ED transfers than lower-volume and rural centers.
Across the United States from 2008 to 2016, hospital provision of definitive acute pediatric care decreased, and ED visits to the hospitals least likely to provide definitive care increased. Systems improvements are needed to support hospital-based acute care of children.