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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Rural Interfacility Emergency Department Transfers: Framework and Qualitative Analysis

  • Author(s): McNaughton, Candace D.
  • Bonnett, Kemberlee
  • Schlundt, David
  • Mohr, Nicholas M.
  • Chung, Suemin
  • Kaboli, Peter J.
  • Ward, Michael J.
  • et al.

Introduction: Interfacility transfers from rural emergency departments (EDs) are an important means of access to timely and specialized care.

Methods: Our goal was to identify and explore facilitators and barriers in transfer processes and their implications for emergency rural care and access. Semi-structured interviews with ED staff at five rural and two urban Veterans Health Administration (VHA) hospitals were recorded, transcribed, coded, and analyzed using an iterative inductive-deductive approach to identify themes and construct a conceptual framework.

Results: From 81 interviews with clinical and administrative staff between March–June 2018, four themes in the interfacility transfer process emerged: 1) patient factors; 2) system resources; and 3) processes and communication for transfers, which culminate in 4) the location decision. Current and anticipated resource limitations were highly influential in transfer processes, which were described as burdensome and diverting resources from clinical care for emergency patients. Location decision was highly influenced by complexity of the transfer process, while perceived quality at the receiving location or patient preferences were not reported in interviews as being primary drivers of location decision. Transfers were described as burdensome for patients and their families. Finally, patients with mental health conditions epitomized challenges of emergency transfers.

Conclusion: Interfacility transfers from rural EDs are multifaceted, resource-driven processes that require complex coordination. Anticipated resource needs and the transfer process itself are important determinants in the location decision, while quality of care or patient preferences were not reported as key determinants by interviewees. These findings identify potential benefits from tracking transfer boarding as an operational measure, directed feedback regarding outcomes of transferred patients, and simplified transfer processes.

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