Individuals with psychiatric conditions are facing increasingly longer wait times in emergency departments across the country, including children, according to a pair of studies presented by the American College of Emergency Physicians.

“I really started doing this research because of my clinical experience,” explained Suzanne Catherine Lippert, MD, of Stanford (Calif.) University and the lead author of both studies during an Oct. 17 conference call, saying that seeing patients sit in the ED for days prompted her to finally look into this issue.

Both studies were conducted retrospectively, looking at data from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey ( NHAMCS ) collected between 2001 and 2011, and focusing on patients who had been brought to mental health emergency departments with ICD-9 codes indicating substance abuse or a primary psychiatric diagnosis. The first study, which looked at ED length of stay for psychiatric patients, defined length of stay as the time from the patient’s arrival at the ED to the time of disposition, divided into categories of greater than 6 hours, greater than 12 hours, and greater than 24 hours. Overall, 65 million ED visits were included for the study.

Patients with bipolar disorder had the highest likelihood of waiting more than 24 hours in the ED, with an odds ratio of 3.7 (95% confidence interval, 1.5-9.4). This was followed by patients with a diagnosis of psychosis, a dual diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, multiple psychiatric diagnoses, or depression. The most common diagnoses were substance abuse, anxiety, and depression, which constituted 41%, 26%, and 23% of the diagnoses, respectively. Patients with psychosis were admitted 34% of the time and transferred 24% of the time; those who self-harmed were admitted 33% of the time and transferred 29% of the time; and patients with bipolar disorder were admitted 29% of the time and transferred 40% of the time. Patients who had either two or three diagnoses were admitted 9% and 10% of the time, respectively.

“Further investigation of the systems affecting these patients, including placement of involuntary holds, availability of ED psychiatric consultants, or outpatient resources would delineate potential intervention points for the care of these vulnerable patients,” Dr. Lippert and her coauthors wrote.

The second study looked at the differences in waiting for care at EDs between psychiatric patients and medical patients. Length of stay was defined the same way it was in the previous study, with disposition meaning either “discharge, admission to medical or psychiatric bed, [or] transfer to any acute facility.” Length of stay was divided into the same three categories as the previous study, too.

Psychiatric patients were more likely than were medical patients to wait more than 6 hours for disposition, regardless of what the disposition itself ended up being, by a rate of 23% vs. 10%. Similarly, 7% of psychiatric patients vs. just 2.3% of medical patients had to wait longer than 12 hours in the ED, while 1.3% of psychiatric had to wait longer than 24 hours, compared with only 0.5% of medical patients. The average length of stay was significantly longer for psychiatric patients: 194 minutes vs. 138 minutes for medical patients (P less than .01).

Additionally, psychiatric patients were more likely to be uninsured, with 22% not having insurance, compared with 15% of medical patients being uninsured. Furthermore, 4.6% of the psychiatric patients’ previous visit to the ED had been within the prior 72 hours, compared with 3.6% of medical patients. A total of 21% of psychiatric patients required admittance, compared with 13% of medical patients, while 11% of psychiatric patients were transferred, compared with just 1.4% of medical patients.

“These results compel us to further investigate the potential causes of prolonged length of stay in psychiatric patients and to further characterize the population of psychiatric patients most at risk of prolonged stays,” Dr. Lippert and her coinvestigators concluded.

ACEP President Rebecca B. Parker, MD , chimed in during the conference call, explaining that a survey of more than 1,700 emergency physicians revealed some “troubling” findings about the state of emergency departments over the last year.

The nation’s dwindling mental health resources are having a direct impact on patients having psychiatric emergencies, including children,” Dr. Parker explained. “These patients are waiting longer for care, especially those patients who require hospitalization.”

Findings of the survey indicate that 48% of ED physicians witness psychiatric patients being “boarded” in their EDs at least once a day while they wait for a bed. Additionally, less than 17% of respondents said their ED has a psychiatrist on call to respond to psychiatric emergencies, with 11.7% responding that they have no psychiatrist on call to deal with such emergencies. And 52% of respondents said the mental health system in their community has gotten noticeably worse in just the last year.

In a separate statement, Dr. Parker voiced outrage about the situation. “Psychiatric patients wait in the emergency department for hours and even days for a bed, which delays the psychiatric care they so desperately need,” she said. “It also leads to delays in care and diminished resources for other emergency patients. The emergency department has become the dumping ground for these vulnerable patients who have been abandoned by every other part of the health care system.”

ACEP presented the findings during its annual meeting in Las Vegas. No funding sources for these studies were disclosed; Dr. Lippert did not report any financial disclosures.


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