Only 1 in 10 callers posing as patients just released from hospital
emergency departments and diagnosed with acute depression could get
appointments for community-based follow-up care, regardless of insurance
"Our results would suggest that, for patients who are already not
engaged with a mental health provider, 'usual care' after an ED [emergency
department] visit for depression involves leaving a message on an answering
machine," wrote Karin Rhodes, M.D., M.S., and colleagues in the March
Annals of Emergency Medicine. Rhodes is director of the Division of
Emergency Care Policy and Research in the Department of Emergency Medicine at
the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice.
"As emergency department physicians, we spend a lot of time trying to
overcome stigma and get patients to talk about their psychiatric symptoms, but
it all goes for naught if they can't get into follow-up care," said
Rhodes in an interview.
Patients often take the blame for not following up on treatment
recommendations. This may be especially true for depressed patients, who have
low energy levels and feelings of hopelessness. But the study indicates"
that even the most motivated patients will have difficulty obtaining
timely appointments and pursuing treatment for mental health
The researchers adopted a technique widely used to document discrimination
in employment or housing. They trained graduate students to pose as patients
who had just been diagnosed in hospital emergency departments with acute
depression and who were seeking to obtain an appointment with a mental health
professional within 14 days. They obtained mental health clinic names and
numbers from referral lists used by hospital emergency departments.
The callers sampled 322 clinics in eight major cities around the country in
2002 and 2003, calling each an average of three times. The time limit set by
the study in which to obtain an apointment was 14 days. Results were compared
with those from a related study of mock patients seeking care for physical
health conditions (like pneumonia, hypertension, or possible ectopic
pregnancy). The differences between the two arms of the study were
Thirty-one percent of the callers seeking an appointment for depression
care managed to connect with appropriate health personnel versus 78 percent of
those who called with the physical health diagnoses. Many did not get that
far. Forty-five pecent of the depression callers had to leave a message,
compared with 8 percent of physical health callers. Response rates were so low
in the depression group that follow-up calls intended to measure access by
insurance status were statistically inconclusive.
Furthermore, callers who had to leave a voicemail message the first time
around had to do so on 80 percent of follow-up calls as well, even when calls
were made at different times and on different days of the week. Depression
callers also had to make an average of three calls to get a response, compared
with 1.9 calls for other medical complaints, and 15 percent had to make at
least five calls before speaking to a clinic staff person.
Only 10 percent of the depressed callers were able to make an appointment
within the study's 14-day limit. Going outside that limit, 17 percent of the
depressed callers managed to get an appointment, compared with 54 percent of
the physical health callers.
Time to appointment, once scheduled, averaged 7.6 days for mental health
callers, compared with 5.0 days for physical health callers, a nonsignificant
Although data were collected six years ago, Rhodes said more recent studies
indicated that these barriers to care were unchanged.
"This is both a capacity issue and a systems issue, and it should be
addressed by changes in the system," said Rhodes. "I hope that
part of the effort to reform the health care system includes changes in mental
health care on a population basis."
She noted that patients were more likely to keep appointments if they were
made by someone else. Perhaps doctors or other ED personnel might have more
clout in breaking through the voicemail barrier to connect with clinic
schedulers, she said.
Meantime, the present situation is Kafkaesque, said Rhodes. "You have
people finally calling for help and getting an answering machine."
An abstract of "Referral Without Access: For Psychiatric
Services, Wait for the Beep" is posted at<http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.annemergmed.2008.08.023>.▪