Psychiatric disorders greatly underdiagnosed in hospital emergency departments

aucasian physicians being more familiar with the mental disorder symptoms of Caucasians, the tendency of African Americans to be less trusting and less willing to disclose emotional problems to people of different racial groups, and physician bias.

The authors say it is possible that African Americans simply have fewer psychiatric disorders than Caucasians and that is the reason for the race disparity. "However, because a much greater percentage of African Americans live in poverty than Caucasians and because there are strong correlations among variable such as poverty and illness, it would be more reasonable to expect the rate of psychiatric disorders among African Americans to be as high or higher than the rate among Caucasians," according to the authors. The authors also note that the observed race disparity may be limited to emergency departments that have a predominantly African American census.

To get a better understanding of the underdiagnosis phenomenon, the researchers conducted informal interviews with more than 50 emergency department physicians. The physicians cited lack of psychiatric expertise, a belief that many mental disorders are relatively unimportant threats to health, and the inability to provide continuity of care for their patients as major reasons that may contribute to underdiagnosis.

As emergency medicine moves from its historical origin as a trauma specialty to its developing role as a primary care provider for millions of people each year, the researchers say it's imperative that emergency departments expand their staffs to include mental health professionals such as psychologists because hospital-based physicians may not have the training, interest, or time to deal with mental health issues.

"The psychiatric underdiagnosing we have documented is potentially the most damaging for the more vulnerable minorities and the poor who rely on emergency departments for much of their primary health care needs,

Contact: David Partenheimer
American Psychological Association

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