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Emergency Department Access During COVID-19: Disparities in Utilization by Race/Ethnicity, Insurance, and Income

  • Author(s): Lowe, Jason;
  • Brown, Ian;
  • Durseti, Ram;
  • Gallegos, Moises;
  • Ribeira, Ryan;
  • Pirrotta, Elizabeth;
  • Wang, N. Ewen
  • et al.
Abstract

Introduction: In March 2020, shelter-in-place orders were enacted to attenuate the spread of coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19). Emergency departments (EDs) experienced unexpected and dramatic decreases in patient volume, raising concerns about exacerbating health disparities.

Methods: We queried our electronic health record to describe the overall change in visits to a two-ED healthcare system in Northern California from March–June 2020 compared to 2019. We compared weekly absolute numbers and proportional change in visits focusing on race/ethnicity, insurance, household income, and acuity. We calculated the z-score to identify whether there was a statistically significant difference in proportions between 2020 and 2019.

Results: Overall ED volume declined 28% during the study period. The nadir of volume was 52% of 2019 levels and occurred five weeks after a shelter-in-place order was enacted. Patient demographics also shifted. By week 4 (April 5), the proportion of Hispanic patients decreased by 3.3 percentage points (pp) (P = 0.0053) compared to a 6.2 pp increase in White patients (P = 0.000005). The proportion of patients with commercial insurance increased by 11.6 pp, while Medicaid visits decreased by 9.5 pp (P < 0.00001) at the initiation of shelter-in-place orders. For patients from neighborhoods <300% federal poverty levels (FPL), visits were –3.8 pp (P = 0.000046) of baseline compared to +2.9 pp (P = 0.0044) for patients from ZIP codes at >400% FPL the week of the shelter-in-place order. Overall, 2020 evidenced a consistently elevated proportion of high-acuity Emergency Severity Index (ESI) level 1 patients compared to 2019. Increased acuity was also demonstrated by an increase in the admission rate, with a 10.8 pp increase from 2019. Although there was an increased proportion of high-acuity patients, the overall census was decreased.

Conclusion: Our results demonstrate changing ED utilization patterns circa the shelter-in-place orders. Those from historically vulnerable populations such as Hispanics, those from lower socioeconomic areas, and Medicaid users presented at disproportionately lower rates and numbers than other groups. As the pandemic continues, hospitals should use operations data to monitor utilization patterns by demographic, in addition to clinical indicators. Messaging about availability of emergency care and other services should include vulnerable populations to avoid exacerbating healthcare disparities.

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