Alcohol: the financial and human cost to the region

The impact of alcohol is revealed in a new report. Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

Alcohol misuse is placing an 'unsustainable burden' on the region’s emergency departments and urgent care services, according to a new report by Balance, the North East Alcohol Office.

The report reveals that the cost of alcohol-related Emergency Department attendances at one of the region’s largest hospitals has been conservatively estimated at £1m per year.

However, it is not just the financial costs that are raising concerns.

Here is a summary of the toll alcohol misuse has on the region's medical staff, as well as the wider community:

  • Hospital staff experience physical, verbal and sexual assaults from patients under the influence of alcohol.

  • Emergency Department and urgent care staff have become “immersed in effects of alcohol” and “desensitized to its impact.”

  • Younger women in their 20's and 30's, and older people, are increasingly arriving in Emergency Departments with alcohol-related issues.

  • The problem is so great that some of the region’s larger EDs employ security guards to help maintain order.

  • Alcohol-related attendances account for 72% of cases on Fridays and Saturdays from 2am – 3am at Newcastle’s RVI.

  • Staff are said to be feeling under more pressure than ever, routinely working night shifts with no break and facing the constant threat of physical assault and verbal abuse.

  • This is can be exacerbated by the disruptive impact of intoxicated patients.

A senior Emergency Department consultant at Newcastle’s RVI noted:

“It’s not uncommon over the weekend to have a number of disruptive drunk patients being rude and in various states of undress, all of which has the potential to be distressing to other patients, particularly elderly or vulnerable groups. The department has invested significantly in a permanent security presence, seven days a week.”

Latest figures from Balance estimate that alcohol costs the NHS £2.7bn annually, with the North East figure totalling £242m, equating to £93 per person per year in the region.

There is unprecedented demand for our services and our staff are working under massive pressure, occasionally with the threat of physical assault and frequently on the end of verbal abuse from intoxicated patients. Particularly around times like the festive season and New Year, we experience some of our busiest days, when we’re seeing cases of unexpected drunkenness resulting in accidents, fights or other problems related to drinking too much. I’d say with the verbal aggression we receive, we’re just used to dealing with it and we manage it as we would with any other patient. We have had staff spat at and injured by intoxicated patients and it’s particularly distressing for the whole department. I think it’s very important to highlight the issues we’re facing on a daily basis and we’re pleased to be working in partnership with Balance to do just that.”

Dr Kate Lambert, Sunderland Royal Hospital

Probably the most shocking aspect of our report is the fact that so many urgent care staff expect to experience physical and verbal abuse as a result of alcohol, as part of their working lives. It’s clear that alcohol is placing a huge burden on urgent care staff, who are committed to helping us when we need them the most. At a time when the NHS is already under massive pressure, alcohol is placing an unnecessary and unsustainable weight on time and resources. This report reinforces the fact that we need to bring alcohol harms under control by making alcohol less affordable, available and widely promoted. We need the Government to take action and introduce a range of targeted, evidence-based measures, such increasing the tax on the most harmful alcohol products, notably white cider, in the March budget – and introducing a minimum unit price, which would increase the price of the cheapest, strongest alcohol products. Such measures would save lives, reduce hospital admissions, cut crime and lesson the financial burden alcohol places on the emergency services.”

Sue Taylor, Balance, the North East Alcohol Office