Social and medical vulnerability factors of emergency department frequent users in a universal health insurance system

Acad Emerg Med. 2012 Jan;19(1):63-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1553-2712.2011.01246.x. Epub 2012 Jan 5.


Objectives: The objectives were to identify the social and medical factors associated with emergency department (ED) frequent use and to determine if frequent users were more likely to have a combination of these factors in a universal health insurance system.

Methods: This was a retrospective chart review case-control study comparing randomized samples of frequent users and nonfrequent users at the Lausanne University Hospital, Switzerland. The authors defined frequent users as patients with four or more ED visits within the previous 12 months. Adult patients who visited the ED between April 2008 and March 2009 (study period) were included, and patients leaving the ED without medical discharge were excluded. For each patient, the first ED electronic record within the study period was considered for data extraction. Along with basic demographics, variables of interest included social (employment or housing status) and medical (ED primary diagnosis) characteristics. Significant social and medical factors were used to construct a logistic regression model, to determine factors associated with frequent ED use. In addition, comparison of the combination of social and medical factors was examined.

Results: A total of 359 of 1,591 frequent and 360 of 34,263 nonfrequent users were selected. Frequent users accounted for less than a 20th of all ED patients (4.4%), but for 12.1% of all visits (5,813 of 48,117), with a maximum of 73 ED visits. No difference in terms of age or sex occurred, but more frequent users had a nationality other than Swiss or European (n = 117 [32.6%] vs. n = 83 [23.1%], p = 0.003). Adjusted multivariate analysis showed that social and specific medical vulnerability factors most increased the risk of frequent ED use: being under guardianship (adjusted odds ratio [OR] = 15.8; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.7 to 147.3), living closer to the ED (adjusted OR = 4.6; 95% CI = 2.8 to 7.6), being uninsured (adjusted OR = 2.5; 95% CI = 1.1 to 5.8), being unemployed or dependent on government welfare (adjusted OR = 2.1; 95% CI = 1.3 to 3.4), the number of psychiatric hospitalizations (adjusted OR = 4.6; 95% CI = 1.5 to 14.1), and the use of five or more clinical departments over 12 months (adjusted OR = 4.5; 95% CI = 2.5 to 8.1). Having two of four social factors increased the odds of frequent ED use (adjusted = OR 5.4; 95% CI = 2.9 to 9.9), and similar results were found for medical factors (adjusted OR = 7.9; 95% CI = 4.6 to 13.4). A combination of social and medical factors was markedly associated with ED frequent use, as frequent users were 10 times more likely to have three of them (on a total of eight factors; 95% CI = 5.1 to 19.6).

Conclusions: Frequent users accounted for a moderate proportion of visits at the Lausanne ED. Social and medical vulnerability factors were associated with frequent ED use. In addition, frequent users were more likely to have both social and medical vulnerabilities than were other patients. Case management strategies might address the vulnerability factors of frequent users to prevent inequities in health care and related costs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Demography
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Statistical
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Switzerland
  • Universal Health Insurance*
  • Vulnerable Populations*