Prior approval in the pediatric emergency room

D. Glotzer, A. Sager, D. Socolar, M. Weitzman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Managed-care plans for low-income Americans are widely promoted to improve the quality and control the cost of medical care by reducing unnecessary specialty and emergency room (ER) care through the use of primary care physicians as case managers/gatekeepers. The purpose of this study was to evaluate one element of managed care, gatekeeping prior approval, for children who use the pediatric ER of one urban public hospital. Over a 6-month period, 518 children and adolescents insured under managed-care plans that required authorization from the primary care physician to receive treatment presented to the ER. Of the 385 records reviewed for this study, the majority (87%) received their primary care at community health centers or the hospital's own outpatient clinics. Most ER visits (72%) were made when primary care sites were closed. According to nursing triage assessment, 57% presented with urgent or emergent conditions, and 26% had a history of chronic illness. Nine percent required hospitalization. Although an elaborate system for gatekeeping was established, only 13 (3%) patients' requests for ER care were denied. Of these, 3 were seen in the ER without authorization, 6 received the recommended follow-up, and 4 were not seen in follow-up. Twenty-nine participating primary care physicians (74%) and 19 ER staff (63%) responded to a survey of their experience with and attitudes toward prior approval. For a variety of reasons, the majority of primary care physicians and ER staff found the gatekeeping policies for after-hours visits burdensome and inappropriate. The low denial rate observed was due in large part to physicians' reluctance, because of clinical, ethical, and legal concerns, to deny care to a child who had already been brought to the ER. This study identifies many problems with the design and implementation of prior-approval policies. It appears that the prior-approval requirement has not visibly changed how patients use this emergency room. The study suggests that on-site gatekeeping for children living in poverty will not result in the anticipated benefits in improved care or reduced costs unless primary care alternatives to the ER can be provided at less cost and with equal availability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)674-680
Number of pages7
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1991


  • health insurance
  • managed care
  • pediatric emergency room
  • prior approval

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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