Emergency Care Wait Times Getting Longer for Children with Mental Health Needs

A lack of adequate access to mental health treatment and resources has long plagued the nation. And the problem is only getting worse for children, who face especially long wait times when they go to emergency departments (EDs) for mental health care, according to a new study published by the journal Pediatrics.

For the study, researchers at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago reviewed almost 150 million ED visits across the United States over the course of a decade. The data set was culled from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey from 2005 to 2015, with researchers analyzing more than 7 million mental health ED visits by children ages 6 to 17. Those visits constituted nearly 5% of all pediatric ED visits during that time.

During the 10-year period studied, children saw ED wait times for mental health issues increase. Waits that lasted over six hours jumped from 16% to nearly 25% of all mental health-related ED visits for children, while ED waits that lasted over 12 hours increased from 5% to nearly 13% of those visits.

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The data showed significant differences in ED waits based on race, with Latinx children nearly three times more likely than white children to wait at least 12 hours in the ED for mental health help.

Meanwhile, the study showed no significant wait time differences based on payer type.

Longer wait times are being compounded by the fact that more children have been seeking mental health care services in EDs since the onset of the pandemic. Additionally, more than 60% of countries have experienced disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable individuals including children and adolescents, according to a survey conducted last October of 130 member nations of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The study’s authors noted the lack of strong financial incentives to expand mental health services for children as a potential contributor to the problem of long wait times. Additionally, they pointed out that such services are traditionally expensive.

The authors stressed the need for change at the legislative level to help.

“Policy needs to address the shortage of pediatric mental health providers and expand coverage and reimbursement for the full spectrum of mental health services,” Jennifer Hoffmann — a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a co-author of the study — said in a statement.

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