The findings are concerning, the researchers said, because they may signal that patients are not actually getting the care they need on an outpatient basis.
Mental health experts have traditionally emphasized the importance of outpatient care in managing non-emergency cases and have urged connecting such patients to outpatient mental health programs. Most ERs are neither designed nor staffed to deliver effective, coordinated mental health care, the investigators said.
“We think of the ER as a ‘front door to care,’ but our findings suggest otherwise as a significant number of patients repeatedly seek care in the ER despite being connected to an outpatient provider,” said lead author Emily Frosch, M.D., a pediatric psychiatrist at Hopkins Children’s.
The findings, Frosch said, raise more questions than they answer, and researchers have only begun to untangle the complex reasons behind recurrent ER visits for non-emergency psychiatric problems.
“We need to understand why families who are already connected to outpatient providers continue to seek ER care, why providers send patients to the ER and what role, if any, ERs may play in the continuum of care for non-psychotic, non-suicidal patients,” Frosch said. “It is possible that ERs fulfill an important function in that continuum for some patients.”
The researchers said one possible explanation is that patient families face barriers to routine outpatient psychiatric care, including limited office hours. Families who have had a positive experience in the ER in the past may be simply choosing to return there for subsequent problems, the researchers say. Also, some families may also find ER care less stigmatizing than outpatient mental health services. Frosch added that ER visits may be driven by some outpatient providers who may not have sufficient resources for optimal care and instead send patients to the ER.
The Hopkins team said future studies should explore more specifically the link between outpatient care and ER visits.
“Perhaps the most critical questions to ask are ‘When was the child’s latest outpatient visit?’ and ‘What exactly transpired between that visit and their subsequent trip to the ER?’” Frosch said.
Susan dosReis, Ph.D., also of Hopkins, was co-investigator in the study.
Founded in 1912 as the children’s hospital of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center offers one of the most comprehensive pediatric medical programs in the country, with more than 92,000 patient visits and nearly 9,000 admissions each year. Hopkins Children’s is consistently ranked among the top children’s hospitals in the nation. Hopkins Children’s is Maryland’s largest children’s hospital and the only state-designated Trauma Service and Burn Unit for pediatric patients. It has recognized Centers of Excellence in dozens of pediatric subspecialties, including allergy, cardiology, cystic fibrosis, gastroenterology, nephrology, neurology, neurosurgery, oncology, pulmonary, and transplant. Hopkins Children’s will celebrate its 100th anniversary and move to a new home in 2012. For more information, please visit www.hopkinschildrens.org
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