One in five patients in NHS hospitals has harmful drinking habit, study shows

‘Our results suggest the problem is much bigger than assumed by doctors,’ says researcher calling for patients to be screened for problem drinking

People in hospital are 10 times more likely to be harmful drinkers than the general population
People in hospital are 10 times more likely to be harmful drinkers than the general population

One in five patients in NHS hospital beds has a harmful drinking habit according to new research which suggests the burden of alcohol dependence on the health service may have been significantly underestimated.

Addiction researchers from King’s College London estimated that one in 10 patients in hospital is alcohol dependent.

The findings come from a review of 124 UK studies spanning 1.7 million patients, and suggest that dependence is common enough to warrant routinely screening patients to spot dependent drinkers.

“Many doctors are aware that alcohol-related conditions are common among hospital inpatients, but our results suggest the problem is much bigger than anecdotally assumed,” said Dr Emmert Roberts, lead researcher on the study published in the journal Addiction.

Alcohol-related conditions are estimated to cost the NHS around £3.5bn a year but government austerity measures have seen budgets for addiction services cut by more than £100m since 2013.

Analysis by the Labour Party has estimated that the numbers of people in treatment has fallen to its lowest levels for a decade, despite rising demand.

But the latest study, published in the journal Addiction, is the first to systematically review the extent of dependence in hospitals in a way that will allow managers to make decision about where to fund services.

It found that rates of alcohol dependence in hospital were eight times higher than in the general population, and harmful drinking was 10 times more common.

Harmful drinking was particularly prevalent in mental health inpatient trusts, where addiction issues may be a symptom of their condition as well as a contributing factor.

Dependent drinking was most commonly seen in patients in A&E departments of acute hospitals.

The figures should be used to target specialist support where patients need it most. Dr Roberts said: “Dedicated inpatient alcohol care teams are needed to ensure this widespread problem is being addressed, particularly in the context of diminishing numbers of specialist community alcohol services in the UK.”

Kate Oldridge-Turner, head of policy at the World Cancer Research Fund, said the research was particularly worrying as alcohol has been shown to raise the risk of six types of cancer.

“We have a social culture in the UK which can be very focused on alcohol,” she said. “We need the government to empower people to drink less by making our daily environments healthier and tackling this drinking culture, as information alone won’t lead to large scale change in behaviours.”

This includes minimum unit pricing schemes which have already been rolled out in Scotland, and more cafes and other social spaces which don’t revolve around alcohol.

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