Original Article

Association Between Perceived Discrimination and Emergency Department Use Among Safety-Net Patients in the Southwestern United States

Authors: Kimberly R. Enard, PhD, Lucinda Nevarez, PhD, LMSW, Deborah M. Ganelin, MHA


Objectives: Patients’ perceptions of how they are treated in their interactions with the healthcare system represent important and valid measures of healthcare quality that may influence health utilization, outcomes, and costs. Perceived discrimination or the sense of being treated unfairly is an important patient perception known to adversely affect health, but the relation of such perceptions to health-seeking behaviors related to low-acuity emergency department (ED) use is unclear. The objectives of this exploratory study were to describe the prevalence and nature of perceived discrimination or perceived unfair treatment (PD/PUT), and to examine the association of PD/PUT with healthcare utilization among adult safety-net patients in the southwestern United States who sought ED treatment for low-acuity conditions.

Methods: Cross-sectional survey data were collected via self-administered questionnaires completed by adult safety-net patients who were uninsured or covered by Medicaid and who sought ED treatment for low-acuity conditions (N = 310). We used descriptive statistics to describe PD/PUT in the healthcare experiences reported by study participants. We used logistic regression to examine the association between PD/PUT and participants’ likelihood to seek health care from ED and non-ED settings.

Results: Thirty-eight percent of study participants reported PD/PUT, most frequently attributed to insurance status (being uninsured or covered by Medicaid). Participants who reported PD/PUT in their ability to access medical care or to obtain health insurance were significantly more likely to be frequent (vs nonfrequent) ED users (odds ratio [OR] 3.80, P < 0.001) and to use multiple (vs 1) EDs (OR 3.79, P < 0.001) during a 12-month period. Participants who reported PD/ PUT while receiving medical care were more likely to have received care in ED and non-ED settings, as compared with EDs only (OR 2.02, P = 0.012).

Conclusions: A substantial proportion of this sample of adult safety-net patients in the Southwest reported experiencing PD/PUT in their healthcare interactions and most frequently attributed such perceptions to their insurance status. Although this study does not establish a causal link between PD/PUTand utilization of care in specific settings, it highlights the need to better understand the underlying causes of PD/PUT across multiple delivery settings and to clarify the extent to which such experiences may influence patients’ healthcare-seeking behaviors. Federal and state policies that aim to maintain or expand health insurance coverage for safety-net populations should consider the role of health insurance status in driving perceptions of being discriminated against or treated unfairly.

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