Preschool-aged children are the biggest users of hospital emergency rooms, according to a new report, which found that nearly half of kids in that age group will end up in an ER at least once in a year.

The study, released Thursday by the Canadian Institute of Health Information, collected data from more than 10 million visits to emergency rooms across the country between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013. It found that children aged four and under accounted for nearly nine per cent of all emergency room visits in Canada over the course of that year.

That added up to nearly 900,000 pre-schoolers ending up in the ER, some for serious problems such as falling down stairs or swallowing a foreign object.

However, the top three reasons pre-schoolers ended up in emergency were:

  • respiratory infections;
  • ear aches;
  • and laryngitis or sore throat.

Some hospitals, such as Ontario’s Lakeridge Health Care, have created pediatric emergency units to deal with young patients.

Dr. Mary Mitchell, chief of pediatrics at Lakeridge, notes that “sitting in emergency is not the best place for a child.”

Nearly 1,800 children have been treated at the special unit since it opened about 10 months ago. Young patients are referred to the department for various ailments, and they can undergo ultrasounds and other tests in a kid-friendly environment.

Meanwhile, the CIHI data found that young adults between the ages of 20 and 24 were the second-most-frequent visitors to emergency rooms, accounting for 7.6 per cent of total visits, while adults aged 25 to 29 accounted for 7.2 per cent of visits. Adults aged 65 to 69 accounted for just 4.5 per cent of visits.

The top three ailments that sent Canadians to an ER were:

  • abdominal/pelvic pain;
  • throat and chest pain;
  • acute upper respiratory infection.

The report contains some good news: the amount of time patients spend in emergency departments has remained unchanged in recent years. Half of patients who visit an emergency room are there for about 2.4 hours or less, while nine out of 10 patients spent 7.4 hours or less.

Patients who spent more than 7.4 hours in an emergency room did so because their condition was serious enough that they had to be admitted.

However, some patients, particularly those over age 65, are spending a long time in the ER, waiting as much as 27 hours or longer to be admitted.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip