Weather disasters increase emergency department visits and mortality among Medicare beneficiaries

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Mass General Brigham study reveals that ED visits and death are heightened weeks after major climate-driven extreme weather events – highlighting the long-lasting impacts these events may have on health and infrastructure.

Weather disasters increase emergency department visits and mortality among Medicare beneficiaries

Renee Salas, MD, MS, MPH. Image Credit: Mass General Brigham

Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of severe weather events, which may particularly endanger vulnerable populations such as the elderly. Researchers from Mass General Brigham and colleagues examined how weather disasters between 2011 and 2016 influenced healthcare delivery and mortality among Medicare beneficiaries in affected counties, finding that one week after major weather events, emergency department (ED) use and mortality remained elevated by 1.22% and 1.4%, respectively, from pre-disaster levels. Importantly, this study also found that deaths remained elevated for as much as six weeks. Results are published in Nature Medicine.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, founding members of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system, collaborated on the study. Identifying events from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), the team analyzed acute disasters such as floods, storms and hurricanes that caused $1 billion or more in damages. Severe storms, compared to other disasters, were associated with the highest mortality rates that persisted for six weeks. Counties with the greatest economic losses were found to have two to four times higher mortality rates – and higher ED usage – compared to all affected counties, highlighting how infrastructure destruction, such as power outages and transportation challenges, may compound both economic and healthcare tolls.

Taken together, these findings suggest that the biggest weather disasters have broad and long-lasting impacts on health emergencies and deaths among those who have Medicare. Tracking these outcomes is important to better protect patients and communities – and to strengthen our health systems.”

Renee Salas, MD, MS, MPH, Lead Author, Department of Emergency Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital

Journal reference:

Salas, R. N., et al. (2024). Impact of extreme weather events on healthcare utilization and mortality in the United States. Nature Medicine.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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