Study objective: There is a high prevalence of unmet substance abuse treatment need among adult hospital emergency department (ED) patients. We examine the association between this unmet need and excess utilization of health services and estimate costs.
Methods: A statewide, 2-stage, probability sample survey was conducted in 7 Tennessee general hospital EDs from June 1996 to January 1997. Toxicologic screening augmented in-person interviews. Main outcome measures were ED case disposition; frequency of physician office visits, ED visits, and hospitalizations in the past 12 months; and costs of excess service utilization. Covariates in the multivariate model were substance abuse treatment need status, age, sex, main reason for ED visit, perceived previous health status, history of tobacco use, and health care coverage. Unmet substance abuse treatment need was assessed using 13 overlapping criteria that incorporated use, dependence, denial, and treatment history. Target substances included ethanol and selected illegal and prescription drugs but not nicotine.
Results: Compared with patients without substance abuse treatment need (n=1,073), patients with unmet need (n=415) were 81% more likely to be admitted to the hospital during their current ED visit (odds ratio [OR] 1.81; 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.27 to 2.64) and 46% more likely to have reported making at least 1 ED visit in the previous 12 months (OR 1.46; 95% CI 1.12 to 1.84). Their utilization patterns accounted for an estimated 777.2 million US dollars in extra hospital charges for Tennessee in 2000 dollars, representing an additional 1,568 US dollars per ED patient with unmet substance abuse treatment need.
Conclusion: ED patients with unmet substance abuse treatment need generated much higher hospital and ED charges than patients without such need. Given potential savings from avoidable health care costs, the future burden of substance-associated ED visits and hospitalizations may be reduced through programs that screen and, as appropriate, provide brief interventions or treatment options to these patients.