Jo Ward’s twin boys have been to the emergency department for respiratory problems about as many times as the dozen years they’ve been alive. Both have asthma and bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a form of chronic airway damage that can occur in children born premature, as the twins were. But each time Ms. Ward took them in for treatment during an acute bout of breathing distress, the staff told her to schedule a follow-up visit for the children with their physician only if they didn’t get better, not regardless of the outcome – as medical guidelines recommend.
“They asked questions, they did the exams, but they really didn’t give you a lot of information to help you at home,” Ms. Ward told this news organization. If they had, she doesn’t think she’d have needed to take them in for emergency care so often.
A new study, published in Academic Pediatrics, suggests she’s right.
Current clinical guidelines for asthma recommend that patients who visit the ED for an asthma-related problem should have a follow-up appointment within a month after the visit, independent of how well they have recovered once home, according to Naomi S. Bardach, MD, a professor of pediatrics and health policy at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the new study.
Her research found that children who have a follow-up appointment within 2 weeks of such a visit are less likely to come back again the next year. Yet the study also found that only about one in five youth had a follow-up visit within that 2-week window.
“The emergency department visit is probably a sign that they need some additional attention for their asthma,” Dr. Bardach said. “We know we can prevent emergency department visits if they get the right kind of medication or if they figure out how to avoid the things that are going to cause an asthma exacerbation or flare.”
For the study, Dr. Bardach and colleagues analyzed data from California, Vermont, and Massachusetts for all asthma-related emergency visits for patients aged 3-21 years between 2013 and 2016.
Out of the 90,267 such visits they identified, 22.6% of patients had a follow-up within 2 weeks, more often by patients who were younger, had commercial insurance, had evidence of prior asthma, or had complex chronic conditions.
Whereas 5.7% of patients who had follow-up visits returned to the ED within 60 days, 6.4% of those who didn’t came back – a 12% difference (P < .001). The gap was larger a year out, with 25% of those with follow-ups returning to the ED, compared with 28.3% of those without follow-ups returning (P < .001), according to the researchers.
Overall, Dr. Bardach’s group estimates that for every 30 children who have follow-up visits with a physician, one would avoid a return trip to the emergency department for asthma within a year.
But given the sheer number of asthma-related trips to the ED each year – 164,145 for kids age 1-17 years in the United States in 2016 alone – that translates into big numbers of kids not going back to the hospital: approximately 72,000 such trips avoided at a savings to the health care system of at least $8.6 million annually.