Complex Patients Have More Emergency Visits: Don't Punish the Systems That Serve Them

UMMS Affiliation

Department of Population and Quantitative Health Sciences; Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

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Diagnosis | Emergency Medicine | Epidemiology | Health Services Administration | Health Services Research | Mental and Social Health | Substance Abuse and Addiction


IMPORTANCE: Better patient management can reduce emergency department (ED) use. Performance measures should reward plans for reducing utilization by predictably high-use patients, rather than rewarding plans that shun them.

OBJECTIVE: The objective of this study was to develop a quality measure for ED use for people diagnosed with serious mental illness or substance use disorder, accounting for both medical and social determinants of health (SDH) risks.

DESIGN: Regression modeling to predict ED use rates using diagnosis-based and SDH-augmented models, to compare accuracy overall and for vulnerable populations.

SETTING: MassHealth, Massachusetts' Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program.

PARTICIPANTS: MassHealth members ages 18-64, continuously enrolled for the calendar year 2016, with a diagnosis of serious mental illness or substance use disorder.

EXPOSURES: Diagnosis-based model predictors are diagnoses from medical encounters, age, and sex. Additional SDH predictors describe housing problems, behavioral health issues, disability, and neighborhood-level stress.

MAIN OUTCOME AND MEASURES: We predicted ED use rates: (1) using age/sex and distinguishing between single or dual diagnoses; (2) adding summarized medical risk (DxCG); and (3) further adding social risk (SDH).

RESULTS: Among 144,981 study subjects, 57% were women, 25% dually diagnosed, 67% White/non-Hispanic, 18% unstably housed, and 37% disabled. Utilization was higher by 77% for those dually diagnosed, 50% for members with housing problems, and 18% for members living in the highest-stress neighborhoods. SDH modeling predicted best for these high-use populations and was most accurate for plans with complex patients.

CONCLUSION: To set appropriate benchmarks for comparing health plans, quality measures for ED visits should be adjusted for both medical and social risks.


emergency department utilization, behavioral health, risk adjustment, social determinants of health

DOI of Published Version



Mick EO, Alcusky MJ, Li NC, Eanet FE, Allison JJ, Kiefe CI, Ash AS. Complex Patients Have More Emergency Visits: Don't Punish the Systems That Serve Them. Med Care. 2021 Jan 28. doi: 10.1097/MLR.0000000000001515. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33528234. Link to article on publisher's site

Journal/Book/Conference Title

Medical care

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Link to Article in PubMed