How income inequality affects ICU bed availability

Access to intensive care unit beds, which have become a critical resource for COVID-19 patients, varies significantly by median household income. According to new research published in Health Affairs, more low-income communities have no ICU beds than high-income communities.  

The research adds to a growing body of evidence that shows the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected low-income Americans.   

For the study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz Veterans Affairs Medical Center, both in Philadelphia, analyzed data on ICU bed capacity from CMS. Across 3,160 hospital service areas studied, the mean number of ICU beds per 10,000 residents aged 50 or older — those most prone to hospitalization from COVID-19 — was 4.97.

When community income was considered, ICU availability varied significantly. About half of hospital service areas with a median household income of less than $35,000 had no ICU beds. The same was true in only 3 percent of hospital service areas with household incomes of at least $90,000. The researchers found the gap in ICU bed availability was more pronounced in rural areas than in urban.

The researchers concluded that "policies that facilitate hospital coordination are urgently needed to address shortages in ICU hospital bed supply to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mortality rates in low-income communities." 

Read the full report here.

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