Peer Support for Homelessness in the Emergency Department

2019-07-15 10:05:49 | BioPortfolio


Peer support workers with lived experience of homelessness will provide advocacy, supportive counselling, assistance with navigating the system, and role-modeling for people experiencing homelessness in emergency departments in the Niagara region of Ontario, Canada. Previous research has demonstrated that people experiencing homelessness experience barriers to care and poor health outcomes, including increased risk of dying, and are frequent users of the emergency department for physical and mental health needs. The benefits of peer support have been studied in hospital psychiatric units and with people experiencing homelessness, but no studies have yet explored the potential impact of peer support workers on homelessness in the emergency department. The investigators plan to do a 12-month randomized study of peer support workers compared to usual care in the emergency department, and evaluate outcomes such as physical health, mental health, addictions, and behaviours, as well as cost-effectiveness and changes in how people experiencing homelessness seek health care. The investigators hope that the findings of this study will provide additional knowledge and evidence for future efforts to improve care for people experiencing homelessness.


Homelessness is strongly associated with an increased prevalence of chronic physical and mental health morbidity, leading to lower health-related quality of life and increased hospital readmissions compared to the general population. People experiencing homelessness have reported experience of discrimination and unwelcome treatment, neglect and rejection, lack of compassion from their health care providers and feeling as though their perceptions are disregarded. Alongside many daily barriers such as substance use, lack of housing, and food insecurity, these issues also negatively influence the desire to seek health care among people experiencing homelessness.

A national strategy to determine the extent and nature of homelessness, 'Point-in-Time Counts' were conducted in over 60 communities across Canada in 2018 to provide a snapshot of the experiences and needs of people experiencing homelessness. The Niagara 'Point-in-Time' Count collected 408 surveys from people experiencing homelessness, with 57 percent of participants reporting a mental health issue, 36.2 percent reporting an addiction, and 33.9 percent reporting a medical condition. Respondents also reported an ongoing need for mental health services (54.3 percent), addiction services (29.2 percent), and medical services (26.9 percent). Of note, 219 participants reporting a collective 663 visits to the emergency department in the preceding 12 months. People experiencing homelessness are much more likely than housed people to access emergency departments for concerns with mental health, although this may not be an ideal environment to provide recovery-based mental health care.

The placement of peer support workers in the emergency department may help overcome barriers to health care for people experiencing homelessness. Peer support is defined as a supportive relationship between a worker and a peer who share the commonality of a lived experience, with the peer support worker able to model recovery and use a recovery-oriented, person-centered approach with their peer. Increasing positive interactions in a clinical care setting could address the lack of trust perceived by people experiencing homelessness towards health care providers, helping to counteract negative perceptions of health care and increasing the likelihood that people experiencing homelessness will seek care in the future.

The benefits of a peer support worker include feelings of empowerment and hope, increased sense of acceptance and empathy, improved satisfaction, and reduced feelings of stigma. Peer support workers in mental health services lead to reduced admissions, as well as earlier discharge when utilized following admission to hospital. Two recent reviews investigated the effectiveness of peer support services in individuals with severe mental illness. Consistently, they found that peers are at least as effective in providing services as non-peers in the same roles. Additionally, there are certain unique elements that can only be provided by peer support workers. Three randomized controlled trials reported better treatment engagement, fewer hospitalizations and hospital days, and lower rates of non-attendance compared to treatment as usual when peer support workers were added to a care team. When peer support workers served as patient advocates and community connectors for people with multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, the number of hospitalizations and days spent in hospital decreased. Furthermore, participants reported a decrease in depressive symptoms and increase in hope, self-care, and sense of well-being. The researchers noted that the active ingredient in these interventions seemed to be the instillation of hope through self-disclosure, role modeling, and empathy paired with conditional regard. Upon comparing and contrasting the core competencies of case managers and peer support workers, it was noted that the unique duties of peer support workers seemed to center around empowering clients via normalization, participating in personal development as a role model, and encouraging clients' educational growth.

However, despite promising findings in a diversity of clinical care settings, there has been relatively limited research and few high quality studies of the effectiveness of peer support workers and their outcomes with people experiencing homelessness. People experiencing homelessness typically have complex comorbid mental illnesses, and they should theoretically benefit from peer support services via the sharing of lived experiences. An exploratory review of the literature on peer support and homelessness found 10 studies totaling 1341 participants that collectively reported improved overall quality of life, significant increases in social support, reduced rates of substance use, decreased homelessness, and better physical and mental health for the recipients of peer support. Although promising, six of the included studies were longitudinal, two were cross-sectional, and two were quasi-experimental. There was also significant heterogeneity in the delivery of peer services across studies, including peer support from mentors, peer support as part of a larger intervention, and peer support groups.

Within the emergency department, there has been minimal research on peer support or similar interventions. Of 11 studies examined in a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of emergency department interventions for frequent users, case management was found to be the most frequently used. For people experiencing homelessness, case management demonstrated increased contact with health services, reduced lengths of admission, decreased emergency department visits for mental health problems, and reduced substance use, but only equivocal findings for physical and mental health. An example of an emergency department program that is similar to peer support can be found in a randomized trial of compassionate care for people experiencing homelessness. This study from 1995 found that compassionate contact from trained volunteers led to a 33% relative reduction in the overall frequency of visits per month and a significant reduction in the time until a first repeat visit; however, health outcomes were not evaluated.

Although there are several types of emergency department interventions, there is overall a lack of evidence about program effectiveness. Very few studies are randomized controlled trials, most studies with high-risk individuals are of low quality, and stronger evidence on cost-effectiveness is necessary for all program types. Furthermore, the quality of care and health outcomes for people experiencing homelessness may be improved through peer support, but evidence in this area is underdeveloped and in need of studies with robust experimental measures. To fill this gap in knowledge, this study will evaluate a program of peer support for people experiencing homelessness who seek care in the emergency departments of a mid-sized Canadian regional municipality. The research questions for the study are as follows:

1. What, if any, are the changes in health service use (e.g., emergency department visits, hospitalizations) following receipt of peer support in the emergency department?

2. What, if any, are the changes to health status, health-related quality of life, substance use, or behaviours, following engagement with a peer support worker?

3. Is peer support in the emergency department a cost-effective intervention?

4. Does receiving peer support in the emergency department lengthen the interval of time before a clinically significant outcome such as a repeat visit to the emergency department or increased morbidity?

5. What are the mechanisms of peer support in the emergency department that may contribute to differences observed in the outcomes between the intervention and usual care groups?

Study Design




Peer Support


Not yet recruiting


McMaster University

Results (where available)

View Results


Published on BioPortfolio: 2019-07-15T10:05:49-0400

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Medical and Biotech [MESH] Definitions

The effect or sway that a PEER GROUP exerts on the beliefs, value systems and behavior of each member of a group. The social expectations for individuals to conform to peer group influence is known as peer pressure.

The evaluation by experts of the quality and pertinence of research or research proposals of other experts in the same field. Peer review is used by editors in deciding which submissions warrant publication, by granting agencies to determine which proposals should be funded, and by academic institutions in tenure decisions.

An organized procedure carried out by a select committee of professionals in evaluating the performance of other professionals in meeting the standards of their specialty. Review by peers is used by editors in the evaluation of articles and other papers submitted for publication. Peer review is used also in the evaluation of grant applications. It is applied also in evaluating the quality of health care provided to patients.

Support systems that provide assistance and encouragement to individuals with physical or emotional disabilities in order that they may better cope. Informal social support is usually provided by friends, relatives, or peers, while formal assistance is provided by churches, groups, etc.

Financial support of research activities.

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