Do Frequent ER Visits Mean a Need Drug or Alcohol Treatment Programs?

According to a new study from researchers at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital, people who visit the ER at least 10 times a year are likely to be addicts in need of drug and alcohol treatment programs. While not all people who visit the ER frequently are addicted to alcohol or drugs, the study found that at least 77 percent of those who use the ER 10 or more times a year suffer from a substance abuse problem.

Addiction Among Frequent ER Visitors

Emergency room physicians have long suspected that most of the patients who frequently seek emergency medical services need drug and alcohol treatment programs, but this is one of the first studies to take a look at the actual numbers. The researchers examined the addiction history of 255 “super-frequent” users who sought care at Henry Ford’s Emergency Department 10 times a year or more between 2004 and 2013. They also examined the data to determine if imposing prescribing guidelines for narcotic medications had any effect on the number of patients who came into the ER seeking those medications.

The study found that 77 percent of those who visit the ER at least 10 times a year have a substance abuse disorder. Forty-seven percent of those were addicted to opiate painkillers. Forty-four percent were addicted to illegal drugs, like cocaine. Thirty-five percent of those who seek care in the ER 10 times a year are alcoholics.

Prescribing Guidelines Significantly Reduce ER Overuse

Many of the addicts who seek frequent ER care want a prescription for narcotic painkillers. Women are more likely than men to use the ER for this purpose. In 2011, ERs around the nation saw 2.5 million visits involving drug misuse or abuse. The rate of ER visits related to drug abuse or misuse climbed 19 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network. An ER that receives an average of 75,000 visits per year can expect to receive as many as 262 monthly visits from addicts seeking narcotic drugs.

The study found that, since Henry Ford Hospital implemented the Community Resources for Emergency Department Overuse (CREDO) in 2004, the number of yearly visits from addicts seeking narcotic painkillers dropped from 32.4 times a year to 13.8 times a year. Among those in need of drug or alcohol treatment programs who were not specifically looking for narcotic painkillers in the ER, yearly visits dropped from 33 to 11.6.

Keeping People in Need of Drug or Alcohol Treatment Programs Out of the ER

Obviously, people who need emergency medical care for reasons related to drug and alcohol abuse deserve treatment just as much as anyone else. But ER doctors can’t keep these people from over-using emergency department facilities without addressing the underlying cause of their frequent ER visits, which is drug and alcohol addiction.

Increasing access to drug and alcohol treatment programs is the only way to effectively reduce or eliminate the overuse of emergency departments by people struggling with substance abuse. Providing the treatment substance abusers need guarantees that they no longer need to visit the ER for medical care due to misuse of drugs and alcohol, or to try and obtain narcotic painkillers from an ER physician.

Jennifer Peltzer-Jones, RN, PsyD, lead author of the Henry Ford Hospital study, put it this way: “Boosting federal and state funding for substance abuse programs could help alleviate some of the frequent use of Emergency Departments as sources of addiction care.”

Indeed, ERs aren’t equipped to provide the long-term care addicts need in order to get well. The most an ER physician can do is treat the symptoms of drug overdose or alcohol poisoning, and then send the addicts back out into the streets, where they’ll just go right back to drug and alcohol use. Even when ER physicians can make a referral to drug and alcohol treatment programs, the addiction epidemic sweeping our nation means that these programs are often underfunded and over-booked.

If you or someone you love is struggling with a substance abuse disorder, don’t rely on government-funded drug and alcohol treatment programs.

Call 888-699-5679 today to learn more about affordable, effective addiction treatment in Delray Beach.