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Keywords:

  • hunger;
  • uninsured and underinsured population;
  • emergency department;
  • medical noncompliance

Objectives: Little is known about the prevalence and health effects of hunger among ED patients. The objectives of this study were to determine the prevalence of hunger among patients in a large urban ED and to examine whether it has adverse health effects. Methods: A survey about hunger, choices between buying food and buying medicine, and adverse health outcomes related to food adequacy over the preceding 12 months was administered to a convenience sample of adult non-critically ill ED patients from afternoon and evening shifts. The study was conducted in the ED of Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Results: Of the 302 eligible patients who were asked to participate, 297 (98%) agreed. Eighteen percent reported not having enough to eat at least once in the preceding 12 months: 14% reported that they had “gotten sick” as a result of not being able to afford their medicine, resulting in an ED visit or hospital admission 50% of the time. Predictors of making choices about buying food vs medicine include having a chronic health condition, lack of private health insurance, having a reduction in food stamps, having an annual income less than 10,000, and lack of alcohol use. By patient report, a reduction in food stamps was a predictor of ED visits and hospitalizations as a result of making choices about buying food over medicine. Conclusion: The ED patients in this urban setting have high rates of hunger and many must make choices between buying food and medicine, which patients report results in otherwise preventable ED visits and hospitalization. Loss or reduction of food stamps is associated with increased hunger and increased perceived adverse health outcomes as a result of not being able to afford medicine.