New research from King’s College London has revealed one in five patients admitted to UK hospitals drink alcohol in a harmful way, while one in 10 are alcohol dependent

While it has long been thought that hospitals are struggling to cope with the numbers of heavy drinkers in A&E and mental health units, new research suggests previously anecdotal information on the number of patients affected by drinking may be substantiated.

New research from King’s College London, published in the Addiction journal suggests that harmful levels of alcohol use are 10 times higher in hospital inpatients, with dependence being eight times higher than in the general population.

The study looked at 124 past studies involving over 1.65 million hospital inpatients. Researchers estimated how many patients had any of 26 conditions related to heavy alcohol use, including liver or gastrointestinal disorders, alcohol poisoning, mental disorders due to alcohol use, or foetal alcohol syndrome. Patients from intensive care units, general wards, A&E departments, and mental health inpatient units were analysed.

Researchers revealed of the 1.65 million hospital inpatients they looked at, 20% used alcohol in a harmful way such as binge drinking, whilst 10% were dependant on alcohol.

Costing the NHS an estimated £3.5 billion each year, admission of alcohol-related medical conditions has increased 17% over the past decade, with just over 2% of all hospital admissions thought to be alcohol-related.

Lead author of the new report, Dr Emmert Roberts, said while many doctors knew alcohol problems were common amongst inpatients, “Our results suggest the problem is much bigger than anecdotally assumed.” Researchers have called for more inpatient alcohol care teams to tackle the issue.

The report also revealed that alcohol abuse is most common among patients within mental health units. Alcohol dependence was shown to be more common amongst those admitted to A&E.

The wider problem

Earlier this year, it was announced that specialist Alcohol Care Teams would be made available across 50 additional hospitals with the highest numbers of alcohol-related admissions. Already in place across six areas including Portsmouth, London and Liverpool, specialist teams offer help and support to patients on giving up alcohol, written advice and counselling.

Existing teams have seen a significant reduction in ambulance callouts, A&E attendances, and readmissions thanks to the support of specialist teams. Concerns have been raised that, whilst planned expansions are a positive step forward, this will still leave many patients seeking help at hospitals across England without the same level of support.

Some are calling for a more rounded approach to help tackle the nation’s drinking problem. Restrictions on marketing, an increase in the minimum cost per unit, and more readily available help and support are all thought to be potential options that could help.

In May 2018, Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce a minimum cost per unit of alcohol as part of their bid to reduce the amount of cheap spirits, cider and lager sold. Recent reports have shown that, since this law came into effect, there has been a substantial fall in the volume of alcohol sold at low prices.

Heavy drinking can increase the risk of seven types of cancer, according to independent charity Drink Aware UK. Long-term drinking can increase the risk of serious illnesses including mouth and breast cancer, and has been identified as a contributing factor for bowel, liver, laryngeal (voice box), oesophageal (food pipe), and pharyngeal (upper throat) cancer. It is also a contributing factor for heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, and pancreatitis.

Alcohol consumption doesn’t just affect our physical health; it can have a negative impact on our mental health, too. Although many individuals try to self-medicate to help sleep, change their mood, or temporarily alleviate feelings of anxiety or depression, research has suggested that alcoholism can lead to an increased risk of depression, dementia, hallucinations, memory loss, blackouts, mood swings, decreased sex drive, and suicidal thoughts.

How to find help

If you’d like to drink a little less, try these five ways to lower how much you are drinking throughout the week. If you are concerned about your drinking or worried about a loved one, there are a number of different things you can do to help.

If you are unsure how much you are drinking, try the Drink Compare calculator to assess how much you are drinking, find out how at risk you are for alcohol dependence, and discover how drinking a little less could impact you.

If you are concerned about your drinking and need help, speak with your GP to find out what support is available, and check out this comprehensive list of alcohol support services to find additional support.

To find an experienced counsellor near you who can help with alcoholism, visit Counselling Directory or use the search bar below.