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Alcohol-related admissions higher than thought


For immediate use
Thursday 10 April

Alcohol-related admissions may be much higher than previously thought

Alcohol-related admissions of the under-20s to accident and emergency departments could be six times higher than past research has indicated. This was the message from emergency medicine specialist Paul Quigley to the Alcohol and Advisory Council (ALAC) conference in Nelson today.

Dr Quigley, from Wellington Hospital, told the conference that accident and emergency data from the past four years which showed the primary cause of an admission as “alcohol” shows a static and not very large number of admissions.

“If research looks at people admitted primarily because of alcohol – and we are talking here, for example, about someone passing out in a street somewhere – there appears to be a level and relatively small number of cases over the last four years. But our clinical staff know there has been a significant increase in the number of alcohol-related admissions.”

“So we looked at data which was coded ‘alcohol’ as the primary cause of the admission, but also included a secondary cause of ‘injuries related to alcohol’.”

Dr Quigley said that resulted in a “six fold blowout” of the alcohol-only figures.
“This means past research could have grossly underestimated how often alcohol is related to emergency admissions.”

Paul Quigley told the conference that the alcohol-only data also shows a steady increase in the number of females being brought in, particularly 14 and 15 year olds. “The common perception is that being ‘smashed’ is a male dominated activity, but we are now seeing more young women than men presenting with severe intoxication. If the trend keeps going women will hit 60 percent of drunk presentations this year.

“The really disturbing thing is that emergency departments see only the tip of the iceberg. You have to be really bad to be admitted to an emergency department, so what does that say about the numbers of drunk under-18 year old girls staggering along the streets of Wellington?”

Once data includes alcohol-related injuries, males begin to dominate admissions again, particularly with ‘fighting injuries’: concussion, facial injuries and fractured hands. But there’s an increasing number of women being admitted with similar injuries.

“It used to be that women had a much higher rate of admissions as a result of mental health issues related to alcohol, for instance, attempting suicide during a binge session. The proportion of those types of admissions has changed lately as the number of women’s ‘fighting injuries’ increases.

“The really scary thing is that there are girls, some as young as 14, who are repeatedly admitted for injuries caused by alcohol. What does that say about their lives and our communities down the track a few years?”

Dr Quigley is calling for improved awareness in emergency departments across the country of the association between weekend injuries and episodes of binge drinking, especially in the under-18 year olds.

“There have been some very good studies done on how easy it is to alter harmful alcohol-related behaviour, just by pointing it out to the patient. The problem is we don't always think about the cause of minor injuries.

“We also need to study the ‘consumer’ patterns of drinking. At Wellington Hospital we are going to begin a study that establishes where the drinker comes from, where they got the booze and where they passed out. This type of information could then be used to find problem areas and enable law enforcement and liquor authorities to be more focused on preventing harm.

“Apart from all the other disturbing features of youth drinking problems, every Sunday my staff are filling out ACC forms with patients unable to work for days. I hate to think of the cost to the country of such hazardous drinking”, said Dr Quigley.


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