Special Considerations for Homeless Patients in the Emergency Department

The emergency department is often the first place that a homeless patient steps into to seek medical aid, and as such, the special considerations in the care of this particularly vulnerable patient population is an important discussion for aspiring emergency medicine physicians.

In 2017, a YaleGlobal article estimated that there were approximately 1.5 million homeless people worldwide, which made up 2% of the global population at the time. In the same report, they noted that an estimated 1.6 billion people lacked “adequate housing,” which unfortunately has no specific definition and thus varies from country to country, as well as from study to study.1

Nevertheless, it is apparent that the numbers are staggering. For an in-depth overview of the statistics relating to homeless on a global scale, Wikipedia offers a list of countries by homeless population, linked here.2 Many of these individuals do not have easy access to maintenance healthcare and end up resorting to emergency services for both acute and non-acute issues.

Numerous studies have shown that homeless patients are generally high utilizers of emergency services; according to the Center for Disease Control in the United States, there was an annual average of 42 ED visits per 100 non-homeless people between 2015-2018, compared to an average of 203 ED visits per 100 homeless persons in the same timeframe.3

So the question becomes: what are some of the special considerations that we, as emergency medical staff, should be weighing when treating homeless patients? Here are some tips:

  1. Start thinking about disposition early, and, if your facility has access to them, get social workers involved as soon as possible. Take into consideration the closing time(s) of nearby shelters, and plan accordingly.
  2. Discuss and document your patient’s social history thoroughly; this can not only help whatever further research that may be conducted but also help build better rapport with your patient. Ask whether they live in a shelter or on the street, for how long, transportation needs, etc., and be sure to document key findings.
  3. Evaluate ability to perform activities of daily living, assess the level of functional independence and ambulatory capabilities.
  4. Provide clothing, food, warm blankets, and mobility devices, when appropriate.
  5. Assess access to follow-up healthcare. Familiarize yourself with the resources available: what are the organizations in your area that might be of help? Are there non-profits that work explicitly with the homeless population?
  6. Discuss any potential substance abuse and attempt counseling.*

* In the United States, consider obtaining an x-waiver, which would allow you to prescribe buprenorphine. For more information about the significance of the x-waiver and information on how to obtain one online for free, click here.

  1. Prepare discharge papers with clear, easy-to-understand instructions for follow-up and care. Avoid medical jargon and use comprehensible language; one recommendation suggests keeping language to a fifth-grader level.

Areas of improvement:

Each institution that deals with homeless patients will likely have its own protocols in place for its management. It is helpful to get acquainted with these protocols and to look around your emergency department to see if there is any room for improvement.

Below are some of the interventions which were undertaken, many of which ultimately showed a reduction in re-presentation and ED utilization, and could lead to an increase in patient satisfaction.

  • transition of care: a review examining the effect of various interventions in discharging homeless patients found that all three studied categories (those being case management, individualized care plans, and information sharing) had a modest impact, with varying degrees of success based on different studies.4
  • dedicated homeless clinics: a single-center study in 2020 found that a dedicated homeless clinic initiative reduced ED disposition failures and inappropriate ED visits, defined as seeking care for non-emergent conditions.5
  • transportation considerations: while some hospitals are able to subsidize travel costs (taxi vouchers, shuttle service, etc.), that might not be possible at all institutions, so alternatives should be considered.

[A 2012 community-based participatory research approach was undertaken to understand how homeless patients (n = 98) reflected on their care. Of the patients surveyed, 42% mentioned that there had been no discussion of transportation, while 11% noted that they had slept on the street the night after discharge.6 This goes to show how important it is to discuss disposition early and thoroughly.]

  • adding social determinants into electronic medical record-keeping systems: a paper reflected on the changes, such as adding fields for social determinants to the electronic health record (EHR) system, that were undertaken in Hawaii, USA.7 Some institutions tag their homeless patients in a certain way, but making changes at the EHR level could help integrate social needs into clinical care across multiple providers.

References and Further Reading

  1. Chamie J. As Cities Grow Worldwide, So Do the Numbers of Homeless. YaleGlobal Online. https://truthout.org/articles/as-cities-grow-worldwide-so-do-the-numbers-of-homeless/. Published 2017. Accessed June 8, 2021.
  2. Wikipedia. List of countries by homeless population. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_homeless_population#cite_note-1. Accessed June 8, 2021.
  3. QuickStats: Rate of Emergency Department (ED) Visits, by Homeless Status and Geographic Region — National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6950a8.htm. Published 2020. Accessed June 8, 2021.
  4. Soril LJJ, Leggett LE, Lorenzetti DL, Noseworthy TW, Clement FM. Reducing frequent visits to the emergency department:A systematic review of interventions. PLoS One. 2015;10(4):1-18. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0123660
  5. Holmes CT, Holmes KA, MacDonald A, et al. Dedicated homeless clinics reduce inappropriate emergency department utilization. J Am Coll Emerg Physicians Open. 2020;1(5):829-836. doi:10.1002/emp2.12054
  6. Greysen SR, Allen R, Lucas GI, Wang EA, Rosenthal MS. Understanding transitions in care from hospital to homeless shelter: A mixed-methods, community-based participatory approach. J Gen Intern Med. 2012;27(11):1484-1491. doi:10.1007/s11606-012-2117-2
  7. Trinacty CM, LaWall E, Ashton M, Taira D, Seto TB, Sentell T. Adding Social Determinants in the Electronic Health Record in Clinical Care in Hawai’i: Supporting Community-Clinical Linkages in Patient Care. Hawaii J Med Public Health. 2019;78(6 Suppl 1):46-51. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31285969http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=PMC6603884.
Cite this article as: Helena Halasz, Hungary, "Special Considerations for Homeless Patients in the Emergency Department," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, July 5, 2021, https://iem-student.org/2021/07/05/special-considerations-for-homeless-patients-in-the-emergency-department/, date accessed: July 2, 2022

Healthcare: A back up industry

Healthcare: A back up industry

Examples of system failure are littered around the medical field and often disguised as professionalism or better yet heroism. “One resource seems infinite and free: the professionalism of caregivers”, says an opinion piece published in The New York Times. The article goes on to say that an overwhelming majority of health care professionals do the right thing for their patients, even at a high personal cost. Noteworthy is the availability heuristic that comes into play. “Of course they should work in favor of their patients, no matter what, isn’t that why they chose the medical profession!?”, you ask. They sure did. A lot of why you believe that medical professionals must go out of their way to help patients can be explained by what news you are being exposed to these days. The availability heuristic! That kept aside the gist of the article can roughly be summed up in the following excerpt

“Counting on nurses and doctors to suck it up because you know they won’t walk away from their patients is not just a bad strategy. It’s bad medicine. This status quo is not sustainable — not for medical professionals and not for our patients.”

I invite you to, for some minutes, drop all the preoccupation and think about it logically. I have, time and again, submitted myself to the idea that empathy and not logic is the best way to get my point across. But today, let us first think about some pertinent analogies.

As we anticipate the dreaded tsunami of COVID-19, many governmental healthcare institutes are sending out a notice for recruiting doctors and nurses for a certain time. My sister who is a nurse said, “Why do they have to make it sound like we are disposable?”. To which, I wittingly replied, “ Well they are probably looking for paid volunteers.” But the same recurring theme covers the core of our conversation. We simply were treating healthcare as a per-need industry. When the reality is, again, a contrasting opposite. Indeed, healthcare is a backup industry. You do not wish to use it when things are going smoothly. The healthcare system of any country should stand on its mighty ability to deal with crises.

Most other industries can either do with the number of people already in the industry or have to let go of people they already had, during a disaster. That is a contrasting opposite to the healthcare industry. Every time the health of the public is threatened we start to search for volunteers and temporary hires. I argue this is because the healthcare industry is ruled by businesses in the most powerful countries. To the point that the notion of just enough or even fewer doctors working in a setting is looked upon as a heroic measure. I don’t suppose you would say. “Oh! That busy bank has only one teller, and she also works as a receptionist. How heroic of her!”, do you?

There are reserves in almost every industry. Take transportation as another example: I visited Kathmandu on a night bus during my vacation as a child. My dad introduced me to two men. Both of them were drivers. I was taken by surprise when I found out the bus only had one steering wheel. “What would the other driver do!?”, the inquisitive child in me asked. My dad was semi-asleep when he answered, “They will drive for the whole night. Don’t you think they need to rest?”. I sure do Dad, I sure do!

In aviation, the first officer (FO) is the second pilot (also referred to as the co-pilot) of an aircraft. The first officer is second-in-command of the aircraft to the captain, who is the legal commander. In the event of incapacitation of the captain, the first officer will assume command of the aircraft. A second officer is usually the third in the line of command for a flight crew on a civil aircraft. Usually, a second officer is used on international or long haul flights where more than two crews are required to allow for adequate crew rest periods.

There have been some examples of what would be analogous to a natural disaster in other industries. Let us take some economic ups and downs as examples. Remember, India demonetized Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes? Bankers had to work extra hours to make sure the undertaking completed in due time. They, of course, were paid an extra allowance for that. Interestingly they did not have to open up more positions for the work to be carried out. Remember the great economic recession? It “forced” business owners to let go of their employees. Not recruit more!

I vividly remember feeling proud of one of my seniors who was portrayed as an ideal healthcare worker. “He was arranging the medicine cabinet when we visited him”, one of my professors boasted. I felt not only proud but a desire to be at his place and do as he did one day. Today I understand that 1) he could be doing something way more productive and 2) what my senior was doing when my professor reached there was a clear example of a system failure.

Let me give you an example of my intern year to demonstrate the lack of consideration of the human element in designing healthcare systems. I had to take leave for some days. It was the flu. I understand that the coronavirus situation has alchemized the glory that flu deserved all along, but those were different times. I had a severe sore throat and my body ached like some virus was gnawing on my bones. I remember feeling very guilty about being ill because while I was sniffing Vicks and popping paracetamols in the hostel. My friends (fellow interns) were working their asses off. But when the system was designed, did no one think that someone might get sick? I mean, we work around infections every day. C’mon system designers, that is blindness, not just shortsightedness. The irony is: we are in an industry where we boast about our ability to empathize with human pain, suffering, and ill-health.

Human development has been punctuated by disasters of some sort, time and again. It is almost comical that we haven’t learned our lessons and that harrowing circumstances have to keep reminding us of the need for preparedness. It almost feels like I am writing a reminder the second time. After I failed to follow through my previous reminder. For me, the first time was the Nepal earthquake 2015. I am sure you have your own first time. I can only speak of the healthcare industry because that is what I have been fortunate enough to see closely. I am sure preparedness means different things in different settings. For healthcare, it means 1) taking into account the human element and 2) realizing that healthcare is a backup industry.

Recent Blog Posts By Sajan Acharya

The Unspoken Damage of COVID-19 on Spanish-Speaking Patients

The Unspoken Damage of COVID-19 on Spanish-Speaking Patients

The COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered some ugly truths about the American healthcare system. One of the ugliest is discrimination against non-English-speaking patients. This form of discrimination particularly affects native Spanish-speaking only patients (defined in this article as “Spanish-speaking patients), who comprise not only a large proportion of America’s hospital patronage but also a majority of those suffering from COVID-19.

In May 2020, as part of my Emergency Medicine residency training, I worked at a small community hospital in northern Virginia, located in an agricultural area with a large number of Central American and Mexican migrant workers. The first few days of the rotation were relatively unremarkable until the COVID-19 cases began to pour in. Most of those suffering from severe COVID-19 were Spanish-speaking patients employed at a local plant nursery where an outbreak was occurring.

I intubated a COVID-19 patient almost every day I worked there. I speak Spanish fluently, and since I was able to communicate with Spanish-speaking patients and their families, I was able to obtain consent for the procedure. I will never forget one patient who had tears rolling down his face shortly after intubation as we titrated his post-intubation sedation medications. I spoke with his son over the phone, in Spanish, who thanked me profusely and cried, worried he would never see his father alive again. He asked if he could visit his father in the hospital. He cried more when I explained the no visitor policy for hospitalized COVID-19 patients. He still thanked me.

The ER staff also thanked me, because until I arrived, few in-person Spanish interpreters or fluent Spanish-speaking providers worked there. Therefore Spanish-speaking patients consented to intubations using a phone-based interpretation service. Though The Joint Commission states that telephone or video interpretation is sufficient to obtain informed consent (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic), in-person interpretation has proved superior. Unfortunately, at this small hospital, out of necessity and due to inundation by COVID-19 victims, Spanish-speaking patients had occasionally been intubated without true informed consent. For example, I remember a case when the overwhelmed nursing staff struggled to connect to and understand the phone-based interpreter while donning PPE and equipping a Spanish-speaking patient’s room for emergent intubation, only to be followed shortly thereafter by another critical COVID-19 patient.

Despite the large number of Spanish-speaking patients receiving care in the United States, a 2016 survey of 4,586 American hospitals showed that only 56 percent offered some sort of linguistic and translation services. As a former volunteer Spanish interpreter for a university hospital, the cost is cited as the primary reason, among many. Discrimination against undocumented people and xenophobia are unstated reasons. I remember distinctly a Grand Rounds presentation about native Spanish-speaking patients in hospitals and how a Latinx pediatrician emotionally expressed how often she witnessed Spanish-speaking families receive worse care than their English-speaking counterparts. Indeed, inadequate or inaccurate interpretation has resulted in serious legal, financial, and patient safety repercussions for hospitals.

In June, I worked in the COVID-19 ICU at my residency program’s hospital. Most of the COVID-19 ICU patients had been transferred from the same small hospital where I worked the previous May. After rounds, most of my afternoon was spent contacting Spanish-speaking family members and updating them on their loved one’s condition. It was heartbreaking to tell these families that they could not visit their loved ones in the hospital. Undoubtedly, the family is incredibly important to all cultures, and particularly to central and Mexican-Americans. Sadly, these strong family ties underscore an important reason Latinx people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19: many live in large, multigenerational family homes, accelerating virus exposure and transmission. Furthermore, many are undocumented and work under substandard conditions, with few or no COVID-19 precautions. They may also be underinsured or have no insurance or benefits like sick leave, further fueling the virus’ devastation.

When you pull the bandage off a gangrenous wound to expose the decaying flesh below, you have two options: put the bandage back on and let someone else deal with it, or clean the wound and treat it so it can heal. The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled the bandage off and exposed certain disgusting realities of our health care system – how can we as Emergency Physicians heal this wound?

We must recognize that hospital under-investment in adequate Spanish interpreters is a form of racism. Medical Spanish should be required curriculum for medical students and residents. The knowledge of basic conversational Spanish goes a long way when communicating with patients and their families. Medical Spanish is not difficult, and there are enough cognates and Latin derivatives that most people, with minimal practice, can get through history and physical in Spanish. Most importantly, hospitals should invest in full-time in-person Spanish interpreters, at the very least for the Emergency Department.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged our healthcare system in myriad ways. With destruction comes the opportunity to rebuild and improve. This is one area that needs it.

Cite this article as: Sarah Bridge, USA, "The Unspoken Damage of COVID-19 on Spanish-Speaking Patients," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, January 11, 2021, https://iem-student.org/2021/01/11/covid-19-on-spanish-speaking-patients/, date accessed: July 2, 2022

Expert Opinion: Luis Vargas – ED Overcrowding


Dear students, emergency departments are suffering overcrowding since long time. There are various causes of this situation as well as solutions. It is better to know about ED overcrowding before your first shift. Dr. Luis Vargas from Colombia summarizes his lecture presented in 30th Emergency Medicine Congress of Mexican Society in Cancun.

ED Overcrowding - English

Manejo y consecuencias del sobrecupo en urgencias

Cite this article as: iEM Education Project Team, "Expert Opinion: Luis Vargas – ED Overcrowding," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, March 29, 2019, https://iem-student.org/2019/03/29/expert-opinion-luis-vargas-ed-overcrowding/, date accessed: July 2, 2022

Against Medical Advice and Elopement

In certain circumstances, patients may request to leave prior to completion of their medical evaluation and treatment. In this situation, it is essential for the last health care professional caring for the patient to document clearly why the patient left and attested that the patient had the mental capacity to make such a decision at that time (Henry, 2013). While some electronic documentation systems have templates in place to assist with this documentation, Table 2 provides basic information for against medical advice (AMA) discharge documentation that can be used to create a uniform template (Henry, 2013; Siff, 2011; Levy, 2012; Devitt, 2000).

What to do?

Interventions in the ED Discharge Process

ContentStandardize approach
DeliveryVerbal instructions (language and culture appropriate)
Written instructions (literary levels)
Basic Instructions (including return precautions)
Media, visual cues or adjuncts
ComprehensionConfirm comprehension (teach-back method)
ImplementationResource connections (Rx, appointment, durable medical supplies, follow-up)
Medication review

An attempt should be made to provide the patient with appropriate discharge instructions, even if a complete diagnosis may not yet be determined. Include advice for the patient to follow up with his physician, strict return precautions, and concerning symptoms that should prompt the patient to seek further care. It should also be made clear that leaving against medical advice does not prevent the patient from returning to the emergency department for further evaluation if his symptoms worsen, or if he changes his mind. Despite a common notion to the contrary, simply leaving against medical advice does not automatically imply that physicians are immune to potential medical liability (Levy, 2012; Devitt, 2000). If a patient lacks decision-making capacity to be able to adequately understand the rationale and consequences of leaving AMA and his condition places him at risk for imminent harm, involuntary hospitalization is warranted. In unclear circumstances and if available, psychiatry can assist in determining capacity, especially in the case of patients with mental health conditions.

Elopement is a similar process where patients disappear during the care process. While it is difficult to provide discharge paperwork for these patients, documenting the actions taken to find the patient is essential (e.g., searching the ED, having security check the surrounding areas). In addition, attempt to reach the patient by phone to discuss his elopement and any additional care issues or concerns. Documentation of these attempts or any additional conversation is very important (Henry, 2013; Siff, 2011).

To Know More About It?


  • Brooten J, Nicks B. Discharge Communications. In: Cevik AA, Quek LS, Noureldin A, Cakal ED (eds) iEmergency Medicine for Medical Students and Interns – 2018. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from https://iem-student.org/discharge-communications/
  • Henry GL, Gupta G. (2013). Medical-Legal Issues in Emergency Medicine. In Adams (Ed.), Emergency Medicine Clinical Essentials, 2nd Ed; 1759-65. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier.
  • Siff JE. (2011). Legal Issues in Emergency Medicine. In Tintinalli’s (Ed.), Emergency Medicine, 7th Ed; 2021-31. McGraw-Hill.
  • Levy F, Mareiniss DP, Lacovelli C. The Importance of a Proper Against-Medical-Advice (AMA) Discharge. How Signing Out AMA May Create Significant Liability Protection for Providers. J Emerg Med. 2012;43(3):516-520.
  • Devitt PJ, Devitt AC, Dewan M. An examination of whether discharging patients against medical advice protects physicians from malpractice charges. Psychiatr Serv. 2000;51:899-902.