Characteristics for Low, High and Very High Emergency Department Use for Mental Health Diagnoses from Health Records and Structured Interviews

West J Emerg Med. 2024 Mar;25(2):144-154. doi: 10.5811/westjem.18327.


Introduction: Patients with mental health diagnoses (MHD) are among the most frequent emergency department (ED) users, suggesting the importance of identifying additional factors associated with their ED use frequency. In this study we assessed various patient sociodemographic and clinical characteristics, and service use associated with low ED users (1-3 visits/year), compared to high (4-7) and very high (8+) ED users with MHD.

Methods: Our study was conducted in four large Quebec (Canada) ED networks. A total of 299 patients with MHD were randomly recruited from these ED in 2021-2022. Structured interviews complemented data from network health records, providing extensive data on participant profiles and their quality of care. We used multivariable multinomial logistic regression to compare low ED use to high and very high ED use.

Results: Over a 12-month period, 39% of patients were low ED users, 37% high, and 24% very high ED users. Compared with low ED users, those at greater probability for high or very high ED use exhibited more violent/disturbed behaviors or social problems, chronic physical illnesses, and barriers to unmet needs. Patients previously hospitalized 1-2 times had lower risk of high or very high ED use than those not previously hospitalized. Compared with low ED users, high and very high ED users showed higher prevalence of personality disorders and suicidal behaviors, respectively. Women had greater probability of high ED use than men. Patients living in rental housing had greater probability of being very high ED users than those living in private housing. Using at least 5+ primary care services and being recurrent ED users two years prior to the last year of ED use had increased probability of very high ED use.

Conclusion: Frequency of ED use was associated with complex issues and higher perceived barriers to unmet needs among patients. Very high ED users had more severe recurrent conditions, such as isolation and suicidal behaviors, despite using more primary care services. Results suggested substantial reduction of barriers to care and improvement on both access and continuity of care for these vulnerable patients, integrating crisis resolution and supported housing services. Limited hospitalizations may sometimes be indicated, protecting against ED use.

MeSH terms

  • Canada
  • Chronic Disease
  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Female
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health*
  • Quebec / epidemiology