‘Frequent flyers’ account for 9.4% of ER visits
As state policymakers seek ways to slow the growth in health care costs and improve access to care, a new report by the Center for Health Information and Analysis on emergency department usage highlights some areas policymakers may want to look at.
The report, released Thursday, is the health policy agency’s first statewide report on how emergency rooms are being used. It analyzes data from 2016 through 2019, before the COVID pandemic. CHIA executive director Ray Campbell said it is meant to provide a baseline for government, health care providers, researchers, and insurers to better understand how the emergency room is being used.
The report itself did not draw any policy conclusions, but the data presented points to some areas of concern.
It has frequently been reported that a small number of health care consumers make up a large portion of health care costs, and that appears to be true with emergency department visits as well. The report found that so-called “frequent flyers” – people who use the emergency room more than 10 times in one year – accounted for 1.2 percent of patients but 9.4 percent of visits. People with Medicaid and Medicare – the poor and the elderly – were much more likely to be frequent utilizers than people who have commercial insurance. These frequent patients are disproportionately Black, and a large number of them are middle-aged (age 45 to 65). Geographically, those in Western Massachusetts were most likely to be frequent emergency department visitors.
Another finding in the report emphasized another long-standing problem: the lack of behavioral health care that is available when someone checks into an emergency room. CommonWealth previously reported that boarding – spending days or weeks in the emergency department – has become a huge problem for children in mental health crisis during the pandemic, largely because of a lack of inpatient beds. But boarding was a long-standing problem even before the pandemic, for children and adults.
The CHIA report did not look at the issue of inpatient transfers, but it did examine the length of emergency department stays for patients who were treated then released. It found that patients who presented at the emergency room with a behavioral health condition spent far longer in the department than patients who came with physical conditions.
The average length of stay overall in an emergency room was 4.2 hours. For non-behavioral health conditions, around 30 percent of patients spent more than four hours in the emergency room. For behavioral health patients (including both mental illness and substance use disorders), 65 percent of patients spent more than four hours there.
The longest type of visit for a non-behavioral health visit was people who presented with abdominal pain, who typically stayed for 4.8 hours. On the behavioral health side, a patient with schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder stayed in the emergency department for, on average, 20 hours. Someone who tried to harm or kill themselves stayed for 19.2 hours. The numbers were also high for those with bipolar and related disorders (18.6 hours) and depressive disorders (15.1 hours).
Senate President Karen Spilka has said she intends to make improving mental health care a priority in the Senate this session. House Speaker Ron Mariano said this week that he “is anxious to work with the Senate president to continue to improve the mental health treatment that we so dearly need in this commonwealth.”
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