Background: In North Carolina, nearly one-fourth of persons with asthma visit an emergency department (ED) or urgent care center at least once a year because of an exacerbation of asthma symptoms. The Emergency Department Asthma Program was a quality-improvement initiative designed to better understand the population of patients who use the ED for asthma care in rural western North Carolina and to demonstrate whether EDs at small hospitals could, by implementing National Asthma Education and Prevention Program treatment guidelines, improve asthma care and reduce subsequent asthma-related ED visits.
Methods: Eight hospitals in western North Carolina participated in the project, which lasted from November 2003 through December 2007. The intervention consisted of a series of individual and structured continuing medical education events directed at ED physicians and staff. Additionally, patients presenting to EDs for asthma-related problems were selected to receive a short patient questionnaire, to determine their basic understanding of asthma and barriers to asthma care; to undergo asthma staging by the treating physician; to receive focused bedside asthma education by a respiratory therapist; and, finally, at the treating physician's discretion, to receive a free packet of asthma medications, including rescue therapy with a beta-agonist and corticosteroid therapy delivered via a metered-dose inhaler, before discharge.
Results: During the 37-month project, a total of 1,739 patients presented to the participating EDs for 2,481 asthma-related episodes of care; at 11% of these visits, patients received the intervention, with nearly 100 ED physicians referring patients to the program. Most of the patients using the ED for asthma treatment were judged to have the mildest stages, and nearly half were uninsured or were covered by Medicaid. For only 20% of the visits was a primary care physician or practice identified. The patient intervention did not appear to lessen the rate of return visits for asthma-related symptoms at 30 and 60 days.
Limitations: Selection bias is likely, as patients enrolled in the study were more likely than patients in the target sample to be adults and insured. Because we did not measure ED staff attendance at educational sessions or their knowledge of and attitudes about asthma care before and after the educational program, we cannot draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the program to change their knowledge, attitudes, or behavior.
Conclusions: Many patients who use the ED for care appear to have mild, intermittent asthma and do not identify a regular source of primary care. Efforts to improve asthma care on a communitywide basis and to reduce preventable exacerbations should include care provided in EDs, as this may be the only source of asthma care for many asthma patients. The project demonstrated that regional, collaborative performance improvement efforts in EDs are possible but that many barriers exist to this approach.