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COVER STORY – 10% of hospital patients found to be alcohol dependent

 Extent of hospital patient alcohol misuse ‘much bigger’ than assumed

04 July 2019 – A fifth (20%) of UK hospital patients have been diagnosed as using alcohol harmfully, and a tenth (10%) diagnosed as dependent on alcohol, according to a study published in the journal Addiction earlier this month. That suggests that harmful alcohol use is ten times more common among people in hospital than the general population, and alcohol dependency eight times more common.

The figures were even higher for accident and emergency (A&E) departments, as well as for psychiatric hospitals. 24% of patients in A&E were estimated to be using alcohol harmfully and 16% alcohol dependent. Over a third of people in psychiatric hospitals were found to be using alcohol harmfully.

These figures represent the first large-scale estimate of the prevalence of the conditions within NHS hospitals, drawing on data from over 1.6 million patients, whereas previous estimates had come from relatively small studies. A team of researchers led by Emmert Roberts of King’s College London and South London and the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust systematically reviewed the existing evidence and combined data from 124 different studies to reach the figures. Roberts believes that doctors currently underestimate how common alcohol-related issues are among their patients, saying: ‘Our results suggest the problem is much bigger than anecdotally assumed’. He called for dedicated inpatient alcohol care teams as the most appropriate response.

Katherine Oldridge-Turner, head of policy and public affairs at the World Cancer Research Fund, argued that the findings reinforce the need for minimum unit pricing: ‘We need the government to empower people to drink less by making our daily environments healthier. Information alone won’t lead to large-scale change in behaviours.’

You can hear lead author Dr Emmert Roberts explain the report’s findings in our Alcohol Alert podcast.