Medical providers often miss the complex social needs of frequent ED users, say researchers

Medical providers often miss the complex social needs of frequent ED users, say researchers

Frequent visitors to emergency departments often have complex social needs, such as homelessness, substance abuse, unemployment, and mental illness, yet both medical providers and policymakers tend to focus on their immediate or recent medical issues without examining such other factors.

In what is believed to be one of the first analyses of frequent emergency department (ED) users to include integrated medical, behavioral and social service data, a new UCSF study comprehensively examined these patients' use of both medical and nonmedical services. This included homeless shelters, jail health services, sobering centers, and ambulatory mental health care facilities.

The authors found that frequent and "super frequent" emergency department (ED) users - those who visit an ED 4 to 17 times per year, or more than 17 times per year, respectively - are generally sicker than infrequent patients and sought a wide range of medical, mental health, substance use, and social services in San Francisco.

Focusing only on acute care use provides a limited view of patients' lives and the ways in which patients access health and social services. Health is more than health care. Our findings point to an urgent need for care coordination and communication across multiple sectors.
Hemal K. Kanzaria, MD

Kanzaria is the lead author and an associate professor in the UCSF Department of Emergency Medicine.

This includes looking beyond emergency services to understand how best to improve health outcomes for frequent ED users and to accurately evaluate the full effect of interventions, the authors said.

"Clinicians in behavioral health, medical health, and social services must share data to identify and address the needs of this population, which can range from poorly controlled diabetes to housing instability, and from addiction to unemployment, in an integrated, coordinated, and comprehensive manner," said Kanzaria, an affiliated faculty member at the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies.

The paper is published in Health Affairs.

Over the last decade, researchers and policymakers have increasingly focused on identifying the frequent and super frequent ED users, who represent a disproportionate share of total ED visits and costs with the intention of intervening to reduce avoidable visits.
In their investigation, the authors examined Medicaid claims data in fiscal years 2013 - 2015 that were linked to records from San Francisco County's Coordinated Care Management System, a county-level integrated data system.

Altogether, 20,667 patients in San Francisco County were included in the study, which focused on adults under age 65. Of those, 1,823 visited the ED 4 - 17 times annually, and 173 had 18 or more annual visits.

The researchers found that a higher proportion of frequent users (28 percent) and super frequent users (54 percent) sought substance use disorder services, compared to non-frequent ED users (8 percent). Similarly, 46 percent of frequent ED users and 67 percent of super frequent ED users sought mental health services, compared to 22 percent of non-frequent ED users.

This group also had more sobering center visits, disproportionate use of housing and jail health services, and a higher prevalence of coexisting medical, mental health, and substance use disorders.
"Integrated health and social data can help identify patients who might benefit from care management, and be used to measure the impact of interventions that target this vulnerable population," said senior author Maria C. Raven, MD, MPH, associate professor and chief of the UCSF Department of Emergency Medicine.

"We believe that policy makers should prioritize improvements in data sharing and the development of integrated medical, behavioral, and social care systems."

The authors note that their study accounted only for mental health, substance abuse, and social services within a single safety-net health system, and might not apply outside of San Francisco County or to non-safety-net health systems. They also noted that the study did not include elderly patients, or other important populations, including undocumented patients and those supported by private insurance.
University of California - San Francisco

Journal reference:
Kanzaria, H. K. et al. (2019)  Frequent Emergency Department Users: Focusing Solely On Medical Utilization Misses The Whole Person. Health Affairs.

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