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Emergency departments urged to screen more young people for alcohol problems

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Nearly nine of out of 10 accident and emergency departments are failing to identify young people with alcohol problems, in contravention of national guidelines, suggests a UK study.

A survey of 147 A&Es, by researchers from Surrey University, found that young patients were not routinely asked about alcohol consumption, despite it being a useful tool in detecting problems.

“Sometimes involvement from a healthcare professional is what is required to support people”

Robert Patton

The research, published in the Emergency Medical Journal, found over 85% of A&Es did not routinely ask young people about their alcohol consumption or use formal screening tools.

The study authors highlighted that National Institute for Health and Care guidelines promoted screening followed by feedback as the most effective way to reduce alcohol related harm.

Although young people were now drinking less than previous generations, the age group still accounted for the largest number of alcohol-related A&E admissions, noted the researchers.

They also found that those over the age of 65 were not routinely asked about their drinking levels either, even though statistics show that 20% of older people drink at unsafe levels.

Drinking above recommended limits can have a disproportionate effect on older people due to interactions with medications, and increased sensitivity to the consequences of consumption.

However, the study found A&E departments were improving alcohol screening for adults, with more than 60% routinely asking and using formal screening tools to ascertain alcohol consumption.

In addition, over 80% of departments had increased their access to alcohol health workers or clinical nurse specialists since 2011, offering expert advice and support to patients with alcohol problems.

Generic alcohol teen

A&E departments had also made progress in informing general practices of when individuals were admitted to hospitals, helping to create a care plan for patients.

Harm from alcohol currently costs the UK around £21bn per year, with £3.5bn spent in the NHS, £11bn tackling alcohol-related crime and £7.3bn from lost work days and productivity costs.

Lead study author Dr Robert Patton said: “Ending up in A&E is often a wake-up call for people and forces them to assess their alcohol consumption.

“However, this is not always the case and sometimes involvement from a healthcare professional is what is required to support people in reducing their alcohol consumption,” he said.

“The fact that young people and those over 65 are not routinely asked about their alcohol intake results in their problem being swept under the carpet which is dangerous,” he claimed. “It is important that the support is in place to help those affected.” 

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