One in five people admitted to a UK hospital drinks alcohol in a harmful way and one in 10 depends on it, according to a new study from King’s College London.
The researchers claim that harmful alcohol use is 10 times higher and dependence eight times higher in hospital inpatients than in other people. They have called for people with issues caused by drinking to be screened, and for more trained staff to give support. Many may not be receiving appropriate treatment, they say.
The study, published in the Addiction journal, looked at 124 past studies and more than 1.5 million patients to estimate how many had any of 26 conditions related to heavy alcohol use. These includes gastrointestinal disorders, alcohol poisoning, liver disorders, mental disorders because of alcohol use and foetal alcohol syndrome.
Alcohol can cause a large number of medical conditions, which costs the NHS around £3.5 billion a year. The report’s lead author, Dr Emmert Roberts, said many doctors knew the problems were common among inpatients. But he warned: “Our results suggest the problem is much bigger than anecdotally assumed”. He also stated that the findings were the most reliable to date and called for dedicated inpatient alcohol care teams to tackle the issue. The report found that alcohol abuse was most common among patients in mental health units, whilst alcohol dependence was more common among people in A&E departments.
“These numbers are shocking: the number of beds used, the cost to the NHS, the sheer number of people suffering as a result of alcohol”, said Dr Richard Piper, Chief Executive of Alcohol Change UK.
“As dedicated alcohol treatment services have faced years of swingeing cuts, hospitals are being left to pick up the pieces – but most simply do not have the expertise or capacity to do so, resulting in alcohol problems going untreated and those suffering returning to hospital time and time again.”
Earlier this year, NHS England announced plans to put alcohol care teams in the 50 hospitals with the highest alcohol-related admissions.
Kate Oldridge-Turner, head of policy and public affairs at the World Cancer Research Fund, said the figures were worrying.
“We have a social culture in the UK which can be very focused on alcohol. 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.”
Ms Oldridge-Turner called for a minimum unit pricing for alcohol and better urban planning to give people more social spaces that do not revolve around alcohol. Reports suggest that there has been a substantial fall in the volume of alcohol sold at very low prices since the minimum price for alcohol was introduced in Scotland last May.
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