Food Insecurity in a Pediatric Emergency Department and the Feasibility of Universal Screening
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Food Insecurity in a Pediatric Emergency Department and the Feasibility of Universal Screening


Introduction: Children with food insecurity (FI) experience adverse health outcomes due to inadequate quantity or quality of food. Food insecurity may be high among families seeking emergency care. The Hunger Vital Sign (HVS) is a two-question validated tool used to screen families for FI. Our goal in this study was to assess prevalence of FI among emergency department (ED) patients, patient-level risk factors for FI, and the feasibility of screening. 

Methods: This was a cross-sectional analysis of FI in the ED. Parents or guardians of ED patients and adult patients (18 years or older) were approached for screening using the HVS during screening periods spanning weekdays/weekends and days/evenings. All ED patients were eligible, excluding siblings, repeat visits, critically ill patients, minors without a guardian, and families that healthcare staff asked us not to disturb. Families answered the HVS questions verbally or in writing, based on preference. Families with positive screens received information about food resources. We summarized patient and visit characteristics and defined medical complexity using a published algorithm. Multivariable logistic regression was used to assess FI risk factors.

Results: In July-August 2019, 527 patients presented during screening periods: 439 agreed to screening, 18 declined, 19 met exclusions, and 51 were missed. On average the screening tool required five minutes (range 3-10 minutes) to complete. Most families (328; 75%) preferred to answer in writing rather than verbally. Overall, 77 participants (17.5%) screened positive for FI. In regression analyses, FI was associated with self-reported race/ethnicity (combined variable) of African American or Black (odds ratio [OR] 5.21, 95% confidence interval [CI], 2.13-12.77), Hispanic (OR 3.47, 95% CI, 1.48-8.15), or mixed/other (OR 3.81, 95% CI, 1.54-9.39), compared to non-Hispanic white. FI was also associated with public insurance type (OR 5.74, 95% CI, 2.52-13.07, reference: private insurance), and each year of increasing patient age (OR 1.05, 95% CI, 1.01-1.09). There were no associations between FI and medical complexity or preferred language. 

Conclusion: Food insecurity was common among our ED patients. Race and ethnicity, insurance status, and increasing patient age were associated with increased odds of FI. Efforts to include universal FI screening for ED patients with immediate connection to resources will enhance overall care quality and address important health needs.

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