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Trends in emergency department visits during cold weather seasons among patients experiencing homelessness in Ontario, Canada: a retrospective population-based cohort study.

CJEM 2024 April 6
PURPOSE: Recent anecdotal reports suggest increasing numbers of people experiencing homelessness are visiting emergency departments (EDs) during cold weather seasons due to inadequate shelter availability. We examined monthly ED visits among patients experiencing homelessness to determine whether there has been a significant increase in such visits in 2022/2023 compared to prior years.

METHODS: We used linked health administrative data to identify cohorts experiencing homelessness in Ontario between October and March of the 2018/2019 to 2022/2023 years. We analyzed the monthly rate of non-urgent ED visits as a proxy measure of visits plausibly attributable to avoidance of cold exposure, examining rates among patients experiencing homelessness compared to housed patients. We excluded visits for overdose or COVID-19. We assessed level and significance of change in the 2022/2023 year as compared to previous cold weather seasons using Poisson regression.

RESULTS: We identified a total of 21,588 non-urgent ED visits across the observation period among patients experiencing homelessness in Ontario. Non-urgent ED visits increased 27% (RR 1.24 [95% CI 1.14-1.34]) in 2022/2023 compared to previous cold weather seasons. In Toronto, such visits increased by 70% (RR 1.68 [95% CI 1.57-1.80]). Among housed patients, non-urgent ED visits did not change significantly during this time period.

CONCLUSION: Rates of ED visits plausibly attributable to avoidance of cold exposure by individuals experiencing homelessness increased significantly in Ontario in 2022/2023, most notably in Toronto. This increase in ED visits may be related to inadequate access to emergency shelter beds and warming services in the community.

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