The impact of alcohol-related harm

Snapshots they may be, but they do not paint the sort of picture which should take pride of place in any album.

We are referring to the reports released this month by Southern District Health Board’s public health service on alcohol-related presentations at Southern emergency departments for 2018 and 2019.

The DHB cautions they are a snapshot of alcohol-related harm, using data that only reflects acute harm and do not cover what is occurring in other parts of the health system.

While what they show is shocking, many will not be shocked because they have heard so much about the harms of alcohol over the years that any new piece of information does not penetrate.

It is not exactly news that booze-ridden patients create problems at emergency departments across the country, but up until now such information was not routinely collated and presented.

Included in the reports were the sad statistics about the number of people presenting in a state which was immediately life-threatening. At each of the three EDs, these numbers had risen in 2019. At Dunedin Hospital there were 65 last year compared with 38 the year before, at Southland they were 21 (15) and in Queenstown’s Lakes District Hospital the number had tripled from three in 2018 to nine last year.

Across the hospitals there were also hundreds of people who were either in an imminently life-threatening state or potentially so when they arrived.

As well as having to deal with the drunk and disorderly patients who can pose a threat to the staff unlucky enough to be dealing with them, often those who accompany the patients are also drunk and may require the attention of security staff.

Clinical director of Dunedin’s ED Dr Rich Stephenson states the obvious when he says dealing with drunk and disorderly patients takes a lot of time and effort, time which could be used to treat patients whose illness or injury has not been contributed to by alcohol. Anyone who may have had to wait longer for attention at an ED because of a drunk person may understandably feel aggrieved.

In Dunedin, just over half of the alcohol-related presentations involved 18-24-year-olds, compared with 36% at Lakes District and 33% at Southland over the two years.

At Dunedin and Lakes District emergency departments the numbers presenting with alcohol-related issues last year were higher than 2018 while in Southland there was a drop. In Dunedin in each of the two years alcohol-related presentations made up 4% of the total turning up to ED, in Queenstown it was 5% and Southland it was 2%.

Put another way, at Lakes District Hospital 1 in 20 people arriving at ED were alcohol-related cases, compared with 1 in 25 for Dunedin and 1 in 55 for Southland.

There will be a variety of reasons for differences between the communities, and the DHB is quick to point out the limitations of the data, but it may be worth noting that Invercargill is the only one of the three areas being served by the EDs where alcohol is not sold in supermarkets.

The DHB hopes to produce the reports each year to help inform its alcohol harm reduction work and policy.

Considerable effort has been going in to trying to minimise harm in Dunedin’s student sector and, as we have previously said, that is commendable.

However, the impact of any local measures will be limited and essentially piecemeal until there is a political appetite nationally for transformational change addressing such things as the age of purchase, advertising and sponsorship, and pricing.

Without major changes, the pictures painted in future public health service’s annual snapshots will remain ugly.



A national appetite for change, not an appetite to Sink More, promoted by the industry.


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