Background: Recent studies indicate that loneliness is a significant risk factor for many ailments from colds to heart disease. If lonely patients are at greater risk for illness, then we might expect that they would use the emergency department (ED) more often and incur greater medical costs than those who are not lonely. Our goal was to determine the prevalence of loneliness in patients in an ED and to evaluate it as a predictor of ED use, hospital admission, and chronic illness.
Methods: We evaluated a convenience sample of 164 ED patients with the University of California-Los Angeles Loneliness Scale, Version 3 and a survey of patient characteristics. Using medical record review and patient self-report, we determined total ED visits, the presence of chronic illness, and discharge diagnoses during a 1-year retrospective period. We evaluated data with least mean square regression and a 2-tailed t test.
Results: We found a statistically significant correlation between loneliness score and total hospital ED visits (P <.001). The mean loneliness score (39) was equal to that of normal populations. Patients scoring higher than the mean used the ED 60% more per year than patients who scored lower (P = .008). There was no association between a patient's loneliness score and baseline chronic illness or severity of current illness (P = .56). Spanish-speaking patients had higher loneliness scores than English-speaking patients (P = .001).
Conclusion: Loneliness is a predictor of hospital ED use independent of chronic illness and is potentially very expensive to society. We recommend further studies be done to examine if allocating resources for preventing, diagnosing, and treating loneliness would be cost effective.