From the Journals

Higher ‘chemical restraint’ rates in Black psych patients in the ED


Black patients presenting with psychiatric disorders to hospital emergency departments across the United States have significantly higher rates of chemical restraint than their White counterparts, new research shows.

Results of a national study showed Black patients presenting to the ED were 63% more likely to receive chemical sedation than White patients. The investigators also found White patients were more likely to receive chemical sedation at hospitals with a higher proportion of Black patients – a finding that suggests hospital demographics influence practice patterns and that structural racism may be a root cause.

“There is a large disparity in the rates at which patients who presented to EDs nationally in the United States are restrained by race. You are 63% more likely, for the same set of chief complaints, to be chemically sedated if you are Black versus if you’re White,” senior investigator Ari Friedman, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of emergency medicine, and medical ethics and health policy, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, told this news organization.

Dr. Ari Friedman, assistant professor of emergency medicine, and medical ethics and health policy, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Ari Friedman

“The major mediator of that difference is the institution you are at – hospitals that primarily serve Black patients are more likely to chemically sedate their patients for these chief complaints – including White patients. So, it’s mediated by the practice pattern and environment,” Dr. Friedman added.

The study was published in the May issue of Annals of Epidemiology.

First large-scale study

Chemical sedation, also known as chemical restraint, is used to calm and help protect patients from harming themselves or others. Previous research on racial differences in the care of ED psychiatric patients with agitation suggests that there may be treatment disparities.

“Previous research from single institutions [has] shown that Black patients are more likely than White patients to be physically restrained, and this has been shown to be true among adult patients and pediatric patients,” lead author Utsha Khatri, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine, New York, told this news organization.

Specifically, two single-institution studies within the last year revealed similar disparities, with higher rates of physical restraint for Black and Hispanic psychiatric patients in the ED. Another recent study showed an association with race, ethnicity, and pharmacological restraint use among pediatric patients presenting to the ED for mental health concerns.

“There has been work in psychiatry on disparities in this context, although there is less work in emergency departments,” said Dr. Friedman. “We looked across all U.S. EDs as opposed to within a single health system. The major trade-offs for us were that we weren’t able to observe restraint orders, which don’t find their way into national datasets, so we had to make some inferences based on the type of medications given.”

For the study the investigators analyzed data from 2008-2018 through the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Survey (NHAMCS) database. They examined the association of race and the administration of chemical sedation, with either an antipsychotic or ketamine, in ED visits for psychiatric disorders. These were any visit where the reason for the visit was “symptoms referable to psychological and mental disorders.”

Of the 76.2 million total ED visits evaluated, the researchers found that Black patients presenting with a psychiatric disorder were significantly more likely to receive chemical sedation with antipsychotics or ketamine than White patients presenting with the same conditions (5.3% vs. 3.0%; P < .01). This difference remained significant when accounting for admission or transfer to psychiatric facilities.


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