From 2006 through 2014, visits to hospital emergency departments due to alcohol consumption increased by 61.6 percent. That translates to a rate increase per 100,000 population of a staggering 47 percent. What is behind these numbers?
Taking a positive view, it could mean that more people realize the serious dangers of binge drinking and know when they have put themselves in danger. However, that is not the whole story, by far. For one thing, the increase in alcohol-related ER visits was greater among women than men, and middle-aged people (ages 45-54) account for a disproportional increase in emergency medical costs related to alcohol consumption.
No one really knows why the numbers have gone up so much, because, from 2006-2014, per capita drinking only went up by 2 percent. It is possible that binge drinking was responsible for much of that per capita increase, however.
Could a Recent UK Study Offer More Insight?
Is it possible that alcohol-related emergency department visits actually indicate bigger societal problems than just binge drinking? A recent UK study published in the Journal of Substance Use & Misuse reported the results of asking people who frequented emergency departments for alcohol-related reasons. Though participants’ use of ER services was high in the preceding 12 months, use of alcohol rehab services was low. This was despite findings that barriers to attending alcohol rehab were not problematic.
Interviewees wanted help related to mental health problems, employment, and housing issues. In other words, frequent users of ERs for acute alcohol issues wanted help for life problems more than they wanted help for alcohol use problems. This only emphasizes how the disease of addiction affects and is affected by all aspects of life, including physical and mental health, as well as socioeconomic factors.
Alcohol-Related ER Use Among Homeless
A 2017 study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that among homeless people, alcohol intoxication was the most common reason for going to hospital emergency departments.
During the worst of the so-called Great Recession, which lasted from late 2007 through 2009, the number of homeless people in the United States increased, and numbers again increased more recently, despite an improving economy. In the past two years, New York experienced an increase in homelessness of 4.1 percent. Stagnant wages combined with higher housing costs have simply put homes out of reach for more Americans, and it only makes sense that alcoholism is a barrier to recovering from homelessness. Still, the big increase in the number of emergency department visits is not fully explained by a higher number of homeless people.
The “Brief Intervention” and Follow-Up
The number of people going from emergency departments to alcohol rehab is small. Some of this is attributable to isolated alcohol use that is not due to alcohol addiction, and some of it is attributable to regional shortages in alcohol rehab facility beds. However, the “brief intervention” by emergency department workers with patients concerning alcohol use has been shown to be effective in reducing alcohol consumption in the three months following discharge from the emergency department. Furthermore, the likelihood of alcohol-related injuries at six and 12 months post-discharge is reduced as well. While this does not solve the issue of greater numbers of alcohol-related ER visits, it may have a positive effect over time.
Alcohol Rehab Necessary, but Not Sufficient to Reduce ER Visits
Addressing the issue of the increased use of emergency departments for alcohol-related reasons, as well as the costs to the healthcare system that result, will require a comprehensive approach to not only treating alcohol addiction, but also committing to tackling issues like mental health, employment, and housing.
As crucial as alcohol rehab is to a sustained recovery from alcoholism, it can only do so much if a person completes rehab only to be homeless, unemployed, or suffering from co-occurring mental illness. However, for those whose trip to the ER wakes them up to the fact that they indeed have an addiction, alcohol rehab is the key to rebuilding physical and mental health, and subsequently reducing the need for ER care. If you would like to know more about alcohol rehab, we encourage you to learn about our admissions. It is the first step on the road to recovery.