Analysis of Emergency Department Length of Stay for Mental Health Patients at Ten Massachusetts Emergency Departments

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Abstract

Study objective

Prolonged boarding times in the emergency department (ED) disproportionately affect mental health patients, resulting in patient and provider dissatisfaction and increased patient morbidity and mortality. Our objective is to quantify the burden of mental health boarding and to elucidate the effect of insurance together with demographic, social, and comorbid factors on length of stay.

Methods

We conducted a cross-sectional observational study of 871 consecutive patients requiring an ED mental health evaluation at one of 10 unaffiliated Massachusetts hospitals. Demographics; insurance; length of stay; medical, psychiatric, and social history; and disposition data were collected. We evaluated the effect of these characteristics on boarding time.

Results

ED median length of stay varied greatly by disposition, driven primarily by ED boarding time. Admitted and transferred patients had longer delays than discharged patients (5.63, 9.32, and 1.23 hours, respectively). Medical clearance time (1.40 hours) composed only 10.5% of total ED length of stay and varied little by insurance. In our multivariate analyses, patients with Medicaid and the uninsured had significantly longer total lengths of stay and were more than twice as likely to remain in the ED for 24 hours or greater compared with privately insured patients.

Conclusion

Mental health patients in Massachusetts have lengthy ED visits, particularly those requiring inpatient admission. Boarding time accounts for the majority of total ED length of stay and varies by insurance, even when other factors known to affect ED length of stay are controlled. Efforts to improve timeliness of care for mental health emergencies should focus on reducing ED boarding and eliminating disparities in care by insurance status.

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