Conference Coverage

Homelessness seems to have greater link to death than common diseases, says physician



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, Dr. 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.

Patrick Perri, MD Thomas R. Collins/MDedge News

Dr. Patrick Perri

People experiencing homelessness don’t have to have such a grim health outlook, said Dr. 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, Dr. 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 Dr. 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,” Dr. Perri said.

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


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