Context: As a safety net provider for many disadvantaged Americans, the emergency department (ED) may be an efficient site not only for providing acute medical care, but also for addressing serious social needs.
Objective: To characterize the social needs of ED patients, and to evaluate whether the most disadvantaged patients have connections with the health and welfare system outside the ED.
Design: Cross-sectional survey conducted over 24 hours in the fall of 1997.
Setting: Three EDs: an urban public teaching hospital, a suburban university hospital, and a semirural community hospital.
Participants: Consecutive patients presenting for care, including those transported by ambulance. The survey response rate was 91% (N = 300; urban = 115, suburban = 102, rural = 83).
Main outcome measure: Index of socioeconomic deprivation described by the US Census Bureau (based on food, housing, and utilities).
Results: Of all ED patients, 31% reported one or more serious social deprivations. For example, 13% of urban patients reported not having enough food to eat, and 9% of rural patients reported disconnection of their gas or electricity (US population averages both less than 3%). While 40% of all patients had no consistent health care outside the ED (< or = 1 visit/year), those with higher levels of social deprivation had the least contact with the health care system outside the ED (P < .01). Although those with higher levels of deprivation were more likely to receive public assistance, still almost one-quarter of patients with high-level social deprivation were not receiving public aid.
Conclusion: Many ED patients suffer from fundamental social deprivations that threaten basic health. The most disadvantaged of these patients frequently lack contact with other medical care sites or public assistance networks. Community efforts to address serious social deprivation should include partnerships with the local ED.