Children's Use of Emergency Departments for Asthma

Persistent Barriers or Acute Need

Published in: Journal of Asthma, v. 40, no. 3, May 2003, p. 289-299

Posted on RAND.org on December 31, 2002

by Marielena Lara, Naihua Duan, Cathy D. Sherbourne, Neal Halfon, Arleen Leibowitz, Robert H. Brook

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Our objective was to explore, in a predominantly Latino inner-city population, why caregivers bring their children with asthma to the ED (emergency department). The authors conducted bilingual parent surveys and medical chart abstractions of a consecutive ED sample consisting of 234 children with asthma (69% Latino; 54% Spanish-speaking) and their caregivers. Outcome measures included: the acute need for ED services based on objective physiological measures, the extent to which these children experienced barriers to quality primary care for asthma before the ED visit, and the relative importance caregivers assigned to worsening symptoms versus perceived barriers to non-ED care when deciding to bring their child to the ED. Most children had moderate or severe asthma attacks. In the prior month, only 33% went to a primary care provider, 83% had used a bronchodilator, and 63%, an age-appropriate spacer device. Seventy-five percent of caregivers cited perceived acute need, instead of barriers to primary care, as the most important reason for using the ED. This perception of acute need was associated with moderate or severe asthma attacks according to objective physiological measures, after controlling for health and sociodemographic characteristics. Children with asthma who use the ED encounter barriers to primary care, but caregivers' perception of acute need-validated by independent measures of attack severity-dominates caregivers' decision to use the ED. Ensuring continuity of care for children with asthma would involve not only improving various aspects of access to and quality of primary non-ED care-including parent education about early recognition and treatment of asthma attacks-but also providing families with practical low-cost alternatives for 24-hour care and assuring linkages between the ED and sources of primary care.

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