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Psychiatric emergency department (ED) visits may be avoidable if individuals have access to adequate outpatient care, but the extent to which individuals use the ED itself as a key point of access is largely unknown.
To describe the extent to which the ED is a first point of contact for mental health care among adults, and identify key factors associated with this outcome.
This cohort study was conducted from 2010 to 2018 in Ontario, Canada. Using health care administrative data, all individuals aged 16 years and older with an incident psychiatric ED visit were included. Statistical analysis was performed from September 2019 to February 2021.
The primary outcome was no outpatient mental health or addictions contact in the 2 years preceding the incident ED visit. The study also measured predisposing (age, sex, immigrant status, comorbidity), enabling (neighborhood income, rurality, continuity of primary care), and need factors (diagnosis from incident ED visit) associated with the so-called first-contact ED visits, generating adjusted odds ratios (aORs) and 95% CIs.
The cohort included 659 084 patients who visited the ED. Among these patients, 340 354 were female individuals (51.6%), and the mean (SD) age was 39.1 (18.5) years. The incident ED visit was a first contact for 298 924 individuals (45.4%). Patients who had increased odds of first-contact ED visits included older individuals (aged 65-84 years vs 16-24 years; aOR, 1.13; 95% CI, 1.12-1.14), male individuals (aOR, 1.14; 95% CI, 1.13-1.15), immigrants (eg, economic class immigrant vs nonimmigrant status: aOR, 1.20; 95% CI, 1.18-1.21), rural residents (aOR, 1.21; 95% CI, 1.20-1.21), and in those with minimal primary care (aOR, 1.68; 95% CI, 1.67-1.69). All diagnoses had a higher likelihood of first-contact ED visits than mood disorders, particularly substance and alcohol use disorders (aOR, 1.66; 95% CI, 1.65-1.68).
This study’s results suggest that nearly half of incident psychiatric ED visits were first-contact visits, which may be avoidable. Targeted efforts to improve outpatient access should focus on populations with risk factors for first-contact ED presentations, including men, older adults, rural residents, those with poor primary care connectivity, and those with substance-related diagnoses.
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