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Understanding the High Frequency Use of the Emergency Department for Patients With Chronic Pain

A Mixed-Methods Study

Glynn, Brittany A.; Brulé, Madeleine; Kenny, Samantha L.; Khoo, Eve-Ling; Shergill, Yaadwinder; Smyth, Catherine E.; Poulin, Patricia A.

The Journal for Healthcare Quality (JHQ): July/August 2019 - Volume 41 - Issue 4 - p 195–211
doi: 10.1097/JHQ.000000000000073
Original Article
Continuing Education

Introduction: Chronic pain (CP) is a common driver of emergency department (ED) visits despite the ED not being the ideal setting for CP because of increased risk of adverse events and high costs.

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to understand factors contributing to CP-related ED visits, patients' care experiences, and patients' perspectives on alternatives to the ED.

Methods: We used a mixed-methods design combining semi-structured interviews and questionnaires with 12 patients with CP who had 12 or more ED visits over 1 year. We analyzed test scores using descriptive statistics and interviews using applied thematic analysis.

Results: Four themes emerged. Factors contributing to ED visits included the following: fear (e.g., pain and its impact); inability to cope with pain; family suggestions to go to the ED; and access to other services and resources. Patients had validating and invalidating experiences in the ED: needs were met or not met; and feeling acknowledged or unacknowledged. Patients' experiences with their family physician included feeling supported or unsupported. Alternatives to the ED included working with an interdisciplinary team, developing personalized care plans, and increased community-based resources.

Conclusions: Patients with CP and frequent ED use present with complex pain and care experiences, requiring careful attention to management strategies and the patient–provider relationship.

For more information on this article, contact Brittany A. Glynn at

Funders: This project was supported by The Ottawa Hospital Department of Anesthesiology and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant to the Chronic Pain Network (

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

© 2019 National Association for Healthcare Quality
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