June 14, 2010
In a typical hospital emergency room, patients are treated for a variety of trauma, with some surviving and some dying.

A new study suggests having health insurance increases the odds a trauma patient will remain among the living.

The University of Buffalo study analyzed 193,804 patients from 649 facilities who suffered gunshot wounds or auto accident injuries. Patients covered by any of the insurance plans studied -- Medicaid, Medicare, private and managed care organizations such as HMOs -- had better mortality rates for all injuries than persons without insurance, the analysis showed.

Dietrich Jehle, MD, UB professor of emergency medicine and first author on the study, says these findings suggest the causes of this difference are many and probably are not based just on quality of care.

"Generally we don't know a trauma patient's insurance status when we treat them initially in the emergency department, which makes us ask if there are differences in these populations other than the delivery of care," Jehle said. "This finding was a little surprising."

Both race and insurance status are independent predictors of mortality rates for trauma outcomes, the researchers found, and of the two, insurance status, specifically lack of coverage, is the most significant.

"This is not unexpected, since uninsured adult patients in general have a 25 percent greater morality rate than insured adults for all medical conditions," he said.

Several possible factors

Lack of insurance could influence mortality in a number of ways, said Jehle. With no way to pay for care, people may delay getting treatment. Those without insurance frequently are from ethnic groups who face language or literacy problems, and may be afraid to go to a hospital.

Other factors could include differences in risk-taking behaviors. Studies have shown a relationship between not wearing seat belts and lack of health insurance, and that the uninsured are likely to drive older, less safe vehicles.

In addition, says Jehle, people without insurance have poorer health status in general, which would lessen their ability to survive a traumatic injury, and they often are treated differently.

"Research shows that, for other than trauma injuries, the uninsured may actually receive less aggressive treatment and fewer diagnostic procedures," he said. He adds that universal health coverage could change these statistics.

"For instance, there would be no need for patients to delay treatment with universal health coverage, and such coverage could improve the overall health status of injury victims and increase their survival rates," he said.

The study data were extracted from the National Trauma Data Bank for 2001-05. The researchers concentrated on patients between the ages of 18 and 30 to eliminate those more likely to have chronic health conditions, leaving 191,666 patients in the analysis with complete data, including 150,332 blunt trauma patients and 41,334 penetrating trauma patients.