How Healthcare Fails the Homeless How Healthcare Fails the Homeless

CHICAGO — Patrick Perri, MD, said during a talk that he frequently thinks about a group of people who were homeless and lived in a park about a hundred yards from the medical center in Boston where he did his training.

On a return visit about 10 years later, Perri went to the park and inquired about the men.

“I came to the horrible realization that all of these people were dead. All of them in 10 years,” he continued, speaking to an audience at the annual meeting of the American College of Physicians.

People experiencing homelessness don’t have to have such a grim health outlook, said Perri, who is medical director of the Center for Inclusion Health at the Allegheny Health Network in Pittsburgh.

During his talk, filled with jarring statistics on the health plight of those who struggle to stay sheltered, Perri said that many of the things that sicken and kill these people are the same things that sicken and kill others — liver disease, congestive heart failure, substance abuse. But the system isn’t equipped to handle the problems.

“Their needs are actually straightforward, they’re easy to describe,” he declared. “They’re known quantities. But the way that our systems respond, or don’t respond, to that creates the complexity. It’s the systems that are complex.”

Morbidity, Mortality Rates “Go Off a Cliff”

A 2017 study in The Lancet compared morbidity and mortality in high-income countries, grouping people by their “level of deprivation.” The morbidity and mortality ticked higher with each deprivation level, but skyrocketed — nearly 10 times higher — for the group that included those experiencing homelessness or imprisonment, sex workers, and those with substance use disorders. As Perri put it, the rates “go off a cliff.”

Studies by the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless program have tracked mortality, and from 1988 to 1993 the average age at death was 47, so, “if you died while homeless, you probably died young.” Moreover, from their first contact to receive care through the program, to their death, only 25 months had elapsed.

“If there’s going to be an effective health care intervention, an acute one at least, you’ve got to get cracking,” Perri said.

Age at death has improved somewhat over time but drug overdose has become a much more common cause, Perri noted.

“There is utilitarian value in learning from people experiencing homelessness,” he said.

The same program looked at a high-risk cohort of 199 — those who went unsheltered for more than 6 months, were age 60 or older, or had certain serious health conditions, such as cirrhosis, substance abuse, and AIDS. A third of these people died within 5 years.

“There aren’t any other common diseases that I’m aware of that have statistics like that,” he said.

These people had an average of 31 emergency department visits a year and accounted for 871 hospitalizations. The estimated cost per-person, per-year was $22,000, while the average annual rent for a one-bedroom in Boston was $10,000.

“We’re hemorrhaging utilization around this population,” Perri said. “Maybe it makes sense to invest in something else other than acute health care. It’s not really yielding very much return on investment.”

Street Medicine Could Be the Answer

Housing First, a program to provide housing without the need to meet preconditions such as sobriety or passing background checks, has had a nonsignificant effect on mortality, substance use disorders, and mental health but has improved self-reported health status and quality of life. Analyses of the program suggest that better interventions are needed, Perri said.

Street medicine could be an answer, he said. Teams of medical staff go to where the people are, and the concept is intended as a continuous, cost-effective, flexible approach to care. Lehigh Valley Street Medicine in Pennsylvania has reported a reduction in emergency department visits and hospitalizations, Perri said. The programs are still too new to gauge the effect on actual health outcomes, but they hold the promise of being able to do so, he continued.

Curiosity about those experiencing homeless is a key first step in improving care, he said. The HOUSED BEDS tool, developed in Los Angeles, can help guide clinicians through their interactions with patients who do not have homes.

Perri said it is “enlightening” when you “express interest, genuine curiosity, about other people’s experiences.”

Catherine Kiley, MD, a retired internal medicine physician who volunteers as a preceptor for medical students in Cincinnati, said there is a void when it comes to teaching students about those experiencing homelessness.

“I don’t think there’s much of this type of discussion that they’re exposed to as part of medical education,” Kiley said. “Their experiences over time, as with most of medicine, will inform them.”

But the findings shared in the session show “how great the need is to speak out, speak up, about patients as people, and what they have to teach us.”

Perri disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.