Report finds high number of pediatric ambulance trips tied to behavioral health emergencies

More than 1 in 10 children brought to hospitals by ambulances in recent years were experiencing behavioral health emergencies, according to a study by researchers at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

The study, which looked at hospital trips between 2019 and 2020, found that 85 percent of those emergencies were for children between the ages of 12 and 17.

Kids between the ages of 6 and 11 were more likely to be restrained than other age groups, and children with developmental, communication and physical disabilities were three times more likely to be restrained than other kids.

Researchers raised concerns over the lack of protocols related to the use of sedatives and restraints by emergency medical services workers.

“There is a great need for standardized EMS protocols for pediatric behavioral health emergencies,” said Dr. Jennifer Hoffman, senior author of the study and emergency medicine physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital. “Currently, only four states have these available.”

Hoffman and co-author Julia Wnorowska said protocols are necessary to help manage children with autism spectrum disorders and other neurodevelopmental disabilities. They said specific interventions could be developed to prevent and reduce agitation, like personalized emergency information forms that delineate patient-specific triggers.

“Future research should determine whether the use of restrictive interventions can be reduced, while simultaneously promoting staff safety, through strategies such as education and adoption of pediatric-specific protocols,” Hoffmann said.