Background: Aboriginal people in rural and remote areas of the Northern Territory of Australia have suffered longstanding issues of homelessness and profound health and social inequities. The town and region of Katherine are particularly impacted by such inequities and have the highest rates of homelessness in Australia, composed almost entirely of Aboriginal people who represent 51% of the total population of 24,000 people. The region is serviced by a 60-bed hospital, and a small cohort of frequent attenders (FAs) represent 11% of the Emergency Department (ED) case load. The vast majority of FAs are Aboriginal and have very high burdens of social inequity and homelessness. FAs are a challenge to efficient and effective use of resources for most hospitals around the world, and investment in programs to address underlying social and chronic health issues contributing to frequent attendance have been demonstrated to be effective.
Methods: These are the interim findings of a prospective cohort study using five sources of linked health and related data to evaluate a community-based case management pilot in a culturally competent framework to support frequent attenders to the Katherine Hospital ED. FAs were defined as people with six or more presentations in 12 preceding months. The intervention composed of a community-based case management program with a multi-agency service delivery addressing underlying vulnerabilities contributing to ED presentations.
Results: Among this predominantly Aboriginal cohort (91%), there were high rates of homelessness (64%), food insecurity (60%) and alcohol misuse (64%), limited access to transport, and complex comorbidities (average of 2.8 chronic conditions per client). Following intervention, there was a statistically significant reduction in ED presentations (IRR 0.77, 95% CI 0.69-0.85), increased engagement with primary health care (IRR 1.90, 95% CI 1.78-2.03), and ambulance utilisation (IRR 1.21, 95% CI 1.07-1.38). Reductions in hospital admissions (IRR 0.93, 95% CI 0.77-1.10) and aeromedical retrievals (IRR 0.67, 95% CI 0.35-1.20) were not statistically significant.
Conclusions: This study demonstrates the short-term impacts of community-led case management extending beyond the hospital setting, to address causes of recurrent ED presentations among people with complex social and medical backgrounds. Improving engagement with primary care is a particularly important outcome given the national impetus to reduce preventable hospital admissions.
Keywords: emergency department; frequent attender; homelessness; indigenous health; tropical environment.