Why poor people choose ERs: we need a system designed to meet everyone’s needs

“Understanding Why Patients Of Low Socioeconomic Status Prefer Hospitals Over Ambulatory Care”[1], by Shreya Kangovi and her colleagues in the July, 2013 issue of Health Affairs, tries to help us answer that question in order, presumably, to help re-design ambulatory care in order to change that preference. A general assumption of health policy is that use of hospital emergency rooms for “routine care” is expensive, inappropriate, provides worse patient outcomes, distracts emergency room staff from caring for the true emergencies that they are presumably there for, and is a significant cause of the overall high health care spending in the US. Although the whole article is available on-line only to Health Affairs subscribers, a summaryis presented on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RJWF) website, because Dr. Kangovi was an RJWF Clinical Scholar.

The authors conducted a qualitative study interviewing 64 people who frequently used the emergency room as their source of medical care, using trained community members to engender greater trust on the part of the patients, mostly lower income African-Americans, to conduct the interviews, in two hospitals in the Philadelphia area.  “Study respondents (both the insured and uninsured) explained that they consciously chose the ER because the care was cheaper, the quality of care was seemingly better, transportation options were more readily accessible, and, in some cases, the hospital offered more respite than a physician’s office.”

These findings should be surprising to many students of public policy, but they were the legitimate perspectives of the people who were using these services, those Kangovi correctly notes, whose “…voices are seldom heard in policy discussions.”  Understanding their concerns is critical, not because they are always “right”, or represent everyone, but because those concerns reflect their experiences, and the degree to which our current strategies are not working, and the degree to which our future strategies are unlikely to work if they do not take into consideration these issues. Three themes generated by the researchers, with supporting quotes from the folks who were interviewed:

  • Convenience. “You must call on the same day to set up a [primary] care appointment … whenever they can fit you in.” This open-access scheduling resulted in people taking days off from work and still being unable to see a doctor. It also made it impossible for many to access transportation covered by Medicaid because the transport arrangements had to made 72 hours in advance. Late hospital hours also made care more available.  
  • Cost. “I don’t have a co-pay in the ER, but my primary [physician] may send me to two or three specialists and sometimes there is a co-pay for them. Plus there’s time off from work to go to several appointments.”
  • Quality. “The [primary care doctor] never treated me or my husband aggressively to get blood pressure under control. I went to the hospital and they had it under control in four days. The [physician] had three years.”
Any health care provider who has worked in an ER or in ambulatory care can validate these concerns, and also respond to them. The most obvious is Cost. Obviously care in an ER is not free; indeed the cost is a major driver of efforts to get people to not use it. But the patient, at the time of service, doesn’t have to put down cash, put down a co-payment, put down real money now. There will be a bill, but that will be something that goes on their (likely existing and mounting) debt burden.

Convenience is, perhaps, a poor choice of words; it suggests something purely volitional, as if people were choosing to have their hair done during the day rather than go to the doctor. Convenience in the way that a middle class person understands it is not what these folks are talking about. They may not have a car or a family member with one (or perhaps it is being used by a family member to get to work), public transportation may be unavailable, unreliable or inaccessible to them given their medical problems, and if they have jobs, they are often not those that just allow you to take a sick day to go to the doctor, but mean they lose pay. Despite efforts to have “extended hours”, most ambulatory care offices are open mainly during regular business hours, during the day weekdays, when the folks who work there want to work, not when it is necessarily most “convenient” for patients. Let’s get this straight, it is not “convenient” to wait 6 hours in an ER to be seen; if this is better than the alternative, the alternative is seriously flawed!

Quality is another issue, and the quotation chosen is very open to criticism. The hospital had 4 days of complete control of the person’s life, giving them their medicines and minimizing any external issues, while the doctor had 3 years in which the person was responsible for taking their medicine, choosing their diet, and deciding where to rank health among the many competing priorities in their lives. As any of us who have worked in medicine know, the control that was achieved in the hospital may well evaporate once someone is back in their regular environment.

Really, this is largely an issue of money, of resources. The authors emphasize that not all the patients were uninsured, but those who had insurance almost all had Medicaid. Not only is Medicaid not equivalent to private insurance (it pays less and lots of doctors do not take it) but it is only available to really poor people. People who are poor enough to have Medicaid have all those issues listed above under “Convenience” and “Cost” that go beyond the direct cost of medical care, but inform every decision that they make in their lives.

Policy is made, in almost every area, by the “haves”, those with money and political power. At the rawest, it is a blatant example of “let’s do for us, and screw those without power”, as for example the farm bill that cuts food stamps for the neediest while continuing support for giant agribusiness (well discussed by Paul Krugman in  “Hunger Games, USA”, NY Times July , 2013[2]). More subtly, and with much less intentionality, not to mention hostility, it is made from the perspective of people who have a lot, who cannot even imagine the lives, decisions, and trade-offs made every day by “have-nots”. The “haves” may identify a lot that is wrong with the health care system, but they do not even think of things like not having transportation, or not being able to take off from work to go to clinics open during working hours, or not having childcare. They are not mean people, but they do not see.

In her comments, Kangovi looks at plans to develop Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). “Our findings suggest that these efforts could backfire by making hospitals even more attractive to these patients. We also debunk the notion that people from these groups abuse the emergency room for no reason and need to be taught how to use it properly.”  The real issue is that there are not the financial incentives to provide high-quality care that is accessible in terms of both cost and the other obstacles people face (e.g., transportation, childcare, office hours). The financial incentives are to try to avoid these patients all together, keep them out of the ER, keep them out of your office; to develop “Patient-Centered Medical Homes” that are centered around the kinds of patients you want to have, and not those you would rather not have show up (and go to the ER!).

We need a system that, first of all, ensures that taking care of everyone is (at least financially) desirable. That means a system in which everyone has the same insurance coverage (a single-payer system), and one that is designed to pay more when providing care for people with greater needs, both medical and social. We need a wrap-around system that enables the most needy to have access to the transportation, childcare and other issues that they need to be able to utilize their medical coverage, and to the education, jobs, food, and housing that they need to be able to have a reasonable chance at health. We don’t need a patchwork system of “good ideas” that do not, in themselves or together, create a real safety net for people.

If we have one that is so full of holes that gaming it for profit is the main activity of hospitals, doctors, and other providers, we have no reason to be critical of the least powerful finding the ways around it that work best for them.



[1]Kangovi S, et al., “Understanding Why Patients Of Low Socioeconomic Status Prefer Hospitals Over Ambulatory Care” , Health Aff July 2013   vol. 32  no. 7  1196-1203; doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2012.0825  

[2]Krugman indicates the logic “…goes something like this: ‘You’re personally free to help the poor. But the government has no right to take people’s money’ — frequently, at this point, they add the words ‘at the point of a gun” — “and force them to give it to the poor.’  It is, however, apparently perfectly O.K. to take people’s money at the point of a gun and force them to give it to agribusinesses and the wealthy.”