Original Articles

Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 13, Issue 6, pp 389-397

First online:

Health characteristics and medical service use patterns of sheltered homeless and low-income housed mothers

  • Linda WeinrebAffiliated withDept. of Family and Community Medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical Center
  • , Robert GoldbergAffiliated withDepartment of Medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical Center
  • , Jennifer PerloffAffiliated withThe Better Homes Fund, Newton Center

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OBJECTIVE: To compare the health characteristics and service utilization patterns of homeless women and low-income housed women who are heads of household.

DESIGN: Case-control study.

SETTING: Community of Worcester, Massachusetts.

PARTICIPANTS: A sample of 220 homeless mothers and 216 low-income housed mothers receiving welfare.

MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS: Outcome measures included health status, chronic conditions, adverse lifestyle practices, outpatient and emergency department use and hospitalization rates, and use of preventive screening measures. Both homeless mothers and housed mothers demonstrated low levels of physical and role functioning and high levels of bodily pain. Prevalence rates of asthma, anemia, and ulcer disease were high in both groups. More than half of both groups were current smokers. Compared with the housed mothers, homeless mothers reported more HIV risk behaviors. Although 90% of the homeless mothers had been screened for cervical cancer, almost one third had not been screened for tuberculosis. After controlling for potential confounding factors, the homeless mothers, compared with the housed mothers, had more frequent emergency department visits in the past year (adjusted mean, homeless vs housed, 1.41 vs .95, p=.10) and were significantly more likely to be hospitalized in the past year (adjusted odds ratio 2.22; 95% confidence interval 1.13, 4.38).

CONCLUSIONS: Both homeless mothers and low-income housed mothers had lower health status, more chronic health problems, and higher smoking rates than the general population. High rates of hospitalization, emergency department visits, and more risk behaviors among homeless mothers suggest that they are at even greater risk of adverse health outcomes. Efforts to address gaps in access to primary care and to integrate psychosocial supports with health care delivery may improve health outcomes for homeless mothers and reduce use of costly medical care services.

Key words

homelessness health status women’s health service utilization primary care