Alcohol-related diseases and injuries pose a significant burden on hospital emergency departments (EDs). Recognized limitations of self-reported data suggest that previous single-year national studies may have underestimated the magnitude of this burden.
Data were obtained from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey for 1992 through 2000. Thirty-seven alcohol-related diagnoses and their corresponding alcohol-attributable fractions (AAFs) were used to estimate the number of ED visits attributable to alcohol. Diagnoses with an AAF of 1 were analyzed by age, sex, and race. Disposition to inpatient settings and alcohol screening also were examined.
During these 9 years, there were an estimated 68.6 million (95% confidence interval [CI], 65.6 million to 71.7 million) ED visits attributable to alcohol, a rate of 28.7 (95% CI, 27.1-30.3) per 1000 US population. The number of alcohol-related visits increased 18% during this period. Visit rates for diagnoses with AAFs of 1 were highest for those who were aged 30 through 49 years, male, and black. From 1992 to 2000, these disparities remained stable for age group but significantly changed for sex (+22%) and race (−76%). Most patients with diagnoses with AAFs of 1 were not admitted to an inpatient unit, and the percentage of patients who underwent blood alcohol concentration testing was substantially lower than corresponding AAFs.
Alcohol-related ED visits are approximately 3 times higher than previous estimates determined by physician documentation or patient disclosure of alcohol involvement. Rising trends, changing disparities, and suboptimal ED management of such visits are a call to action.