Psychiatric Boarding: Averting Long Waits in Emergency Rooms

Psychiatric Boarding: Averting Long Waits in Emergency Rooms

Psychiatric patients awaiting treatment in hospital emergency departments (EDs) for hours and even days—a process known as “boarding”—has become a major issue across the US, with exposés appearing in publications such as The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.1,2 A facility in South Carolina recently made national news after keeping such a patient for a stunning 38 days.3 With few options for care at most sites other than transfer out for psychiatric hospitalization, EDs are often forced to hold patients who are acutely dangerous to themselves or others for long periods until an inpatient bed can be obtained.

Until now, many authorities have reported frustration over lack of effective solutions to this dilemma. Most proffered ideas have focused on opening up access to more inpatient psychiatric beds; in this regard, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has recently begun a demonstration project to allow more private psychiatric hospitals to accept Medicaid patients.4 Yet such approaches still rely on the outdated concept that most acute psychiatric care requires inpatient hospitalization—a practice roughly equivalent to hospitalizing everyone who comes to an ED with chest pain. Relatively little attention has been paid to confronting the problem head on, by treating patients at the emergency level of care.

Addressing the problem at the front end, by providing emergency psychiatric services, is not a new concept. Dedicated psychiatric emergency service (PES) programs, often alternatively called a “CPEP” or “ETU” at locations around the country, are specialized EDs solely for psychiatric patients. In a 2008 American College of Emergency Physicians survey about psychiatric boarding, 81% of respondents endorsed “dedicated regional psychiatric emergency centers” as a potential solution to the boarding problem.5 And later the same year, the  US Department of Health and Human Services produced a study on boarding that called for expansion of PES programs as its top recommendation.6

However, although one might presume a PES could lead to reduced boarding in a system, there have been few studies showing just how much of an effect there might be—and whether any such effect would be significant enough to justify creation of a PES. And then, if a PES is indicated, just how could such a program be funded?

Recently we tackled these questions, and reported our findings in a study published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine7 We assumed there would be a noticeable difference between emergency medical systems with a PES and those without. But the profound disparity seen in the study data was truly amazing. Compared with state averages, the PES in the study decreased ED boarding times by over 80% and reduced the need for psychiatric hospitalizations by up to 75%. The PES was shown to dramatically increase access to care while substantially saving money overall.


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