Objective: To describe an economic model for formal cost-benefit analysis of emergency department (ED)-based social services.
Methods: The varied monetary costs and benefits associated with ED-based social work services were projected for three hypothetical levels of ED volume (30,000, 60,000, and 90,000 patients/year). Primary benefits included the prevention of return ED visits, the prevention of "social" hospital admissions, and the protection of doctor and nurse time. The primary cost was salary support for full-time social work staffing. Sensitivity analysis was performed to account for varying estimates.
Results: For a small-volume ED, total benefits to offset costs ranged from $43,869 to $81,504, yielding a net cost of $99,936 up to $137,571 for full-time social work coverage. For a moderate-size ED, total benefits ranged from $87,660 to $162,930, yielding a net cost of only $18,510 on the high end of the sensitivity analysis, and $87,668 on the low end. For a large-volume ED, total benefits ranged from $131,529 to $247,434, yielding a net cost of $49,911 on the low end of the sensitivity analysis, but a net benefit of $65,994 on the high end.
Conclusions: Dedicated social work staffing of EDs may yield net economic benefits, especially in large urban centers. Moderate-size EDs may almost "break even" in economic terms, and small EDs may realize a net cost, but in either case, the cost of social services can be significantly offset by decreased utilization of hospital and ED services, and by more efficient use of medical staff time.