Mental Health System Failing Kids Leaving ED

Only 56% of children enrolled in Medicaid received any outpatient follow-up within 30 days after a mental health emergency department discharge, according to results of a large study released in Pediatrics.

Fewer than one-third (31.2%) had an outpatient visit within a week after a mental health ED discharge.

Researchers conducted a retrospective study of 28,551 children ages 6-17 years old who had mental health discharges from EDs from January 2018 to June 2019.

The researchers, led by Jennifer A. Hoffmann, MD, MS, with the division of emergency medicine, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Northwestern University, Chicago, also analyzed the effect that having a timely follow-up had on whether the child was likely to return to the ED.

Follow-up within 30 days cuts risk of quick return to ED

They found that follow-up within 30 days was linked with a 26% decreased risk of return within 5 days of the initial ED discharge (hazard ratio, 0.74; 95% confidence interval, 0.63-0.91).

The researchers also found racial disparities in the data. The odds for getting follow-up outpatient care were lower for non-Hispanic Black children, for children with fee-for-service insurance, and for children with no previous mental health outpatient visits.

The numbers were particularly striking for Black children, who were 10% less likely to get outpatient follow-up than their White counterparts.

In addition, 27% of all children in this sample returned to the ED for mental health-related symptoms within 6 months, 20% spent more than 48 hours in the ED for their initial mental health visit, and children with 14 or more mental health outpatient visits had five times higher adjusted odds of follow-up within 7 days and 9.5 times higher adjusted odds of follow-up within 30 days, compared with children with no outpatient mental health visits in the previous year.

A ‘mental health system of care in crisis’

In an accompanying editorial, Hannah E. Karpman, MSW, PhD, with the department of pediatrics, University of Massachusetts, Worcester, and colleagues said those statistics help expose other signs of “a pediatric mental health system of care in crisis.”

If one in five children are spending more than 2 days in the ED for their initial mental health visit, they wrote, that signals the follow-up care they need is not readily available.

The 27% returning to the ED shows that, even if the children are getting outpatient services, that environment is failing them, they noted.

Additionally, 28% of children presented with more than four mental health diagnoses, “suggesting poor diagnostic specificity or perhaps inadequate diagnostic categories to characterize their needs.”

The authors called for interventions that link patients to outpatient care within 5 days of a mental health ED discharge.

The editorialists wrote: “We believe it is time for a “child mental health moonshot,” and call on the field and its funders to come together to launch the next wave of bold mental health research for the benefit of these children and their families who so desperately need our support.”

Things may even be worse in light of COVID

David Rettew, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Lane County Behavioral Health in Eugene, Ore., and Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, said in an interview the numbers won’t surprise clinicians who support these children or the patients’ families.

He added that he wouldn’t be surprised if things are even worse now after this study’s data collection, “as COVID and other factors have driven more mental health professionals away from many of the people who need them the most.”

The study does present new evidence that quick access to care is particularly tough for young people who aren’t already established in care, he noted.

“As wait lists grow at outpatient clinics, we are seeing ever stronger need for centers willing and able to provide actual mental health assessment and treatment for people right ‘off the street,’ ” he said.

Dr. Rettew emphasized that, because mental health conditions rarely improve quickly, having a timely follow-up appointment is important, but won’t likely bring quick improvement.

He agreed with the editorialists’ argument and emphasized, “not only do we need to focus on more rapid care, but also more comprehensive and effective care.

“For an adolescent in crisis, achieving stability often involves more than a medication tweak and a supportive conversation,” Dr. Rettew said. “Rather, it can require an intensive multimodal approach that addresses things like family financial stressors, parental mental health and substance use concerns, school supports, and health promotion or lifestyle changes. What we desperately need are more teams that can quickly intervene on all these levels.”

Addressing problems before crisis is essential

Ideally, teams would address these issues before a crisis. That helps support the “moonshot” charge the editorialists suggest, which “would significantly disrupt the current way we value different components of our health care system,” Dr. Rettew said.

He highlighted a statistic that may get lost in the data: Nearly 40% of youth in enough danger to need an ED visit had no more than one health-related appointment of any kind in the previous year.

“To me, this speaks volumes about the need for earlier involvement before things escalate to the level of an emergency,” Dr. Rettew said.

The authors and editorialists declared no relevant financial relationships. Dr. Rettew is author of the book, “Parenting Made Complicated: What Science Really Knows about the Greatest Debates of Early Childhood.”

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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