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Do drunks have to go to the emergency room?

By Andrew M. Seaman

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - With the help of a checklist, ambulance workers may be able to safely reroute drunk patients to detoxification centers instead of emergency rooms, according to a new study.

Researchers in Colorado found no serious medical problems were reported after 138 people were sent to a detox center to sleep it off, instead of to an ER.

In 2004, according to the researchers, it's estimated that 0.6 percent of all U.S. ER visits were made by people without any problems other than being drunk. Those visits ended up costing about $900 million.

"Part of the issue has been - as it is in many busy ER departments - there's a lot of chronic alcoholics that are brought in by ambulance, police or just come in. Often they are brought in because they have not committed a crime or there is limited space in our detoxification center. So the majority were brought to the ER department," said Dr. David Ross, the study's lead author from Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in Colorado Springs.

Ross said the ambulance company where he serves as medical director created the checklist with the help of the local detox center, which provided limited medical care by a nurse, and the local hospitals to reduce the number of drunks without medical needs being sent to the local ERs.

They created a checklist with 29 yes-or-no questions, such as whether the patient is cooperating with the ambulance worker's examination and if the patient is willing to go to the detox center.

The patient was sent to the ER if the ambulance worker checked "no" on any question.

The researchers then went back to look at the patients they transported between December 2003 and December 2005 to see whether or not any of them ended up having serious medical problems at the detox center.

During that two year period, the ambulance workers transported 718 drunks. The detox center received 138 and the local ERs got 580.

Overall, 11 of the patients who were taken to detox were turned away because there was no room, their blood alcohol level exceeded the limit, their family came to pick them up or they were combative.

Another four patients at the detox center were taken to the ER because of minor complications, including chest and knee pain. However, there were no serious complications reported.

"We really believe that we did not miss anybody with a serious illness and injury that didn't go to the ER as they should have," said Ross.

But the researchers write in the Annals of Emergency Medicine that their study did have some limitations.

Specifically, the researchers did not plan in advance to do a study when they were creating the checklist, which means their findings are limited to whatever information was collected at the detox center and ERs.

Also, the number of people who were sent to the detox center in their study is relatively small, so it's hard to tell how many serious complications they'd see among a larger group of people.

"We tried to estimate how likely we would have been to encounter a serious event… We estimated at most we'd encounter three serious adverse events (in 748 patients)," Ross told Reuters Health.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/QgPCT5 Annals of Emergency Medicine, online November 9, 2012.

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