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04 July 2019

Ten percent of hospital inpatients are alcohol dependent

A review of evidence by researchers at King’s College London has found high levels of alcohol dependence among hospital inpatients. The researchers estimate one in five patients in the UK hospital system uses alcohol harmfully, and one in ten is alcohol dependent.

Wine bottles

Currently little is being done to screen routinely for alcohol dependence in hospitals, and services for patients with alcohol dependence are limited. The researchers call for universal screening in hospitals for alcohol-related problems and improved training for hospital staff around alcohol-related conditions.

The systematic review and meta-analysis, published in the journal Addiction, provides the first robust estimates of alcohol-related conditions among UK hospital inpatients by pooling the results of 124 earlier studies, covering a total of 1,657,614 participants.

Experts have assumed that the prevalence of alcohol-related conditions is higher in hospital inpatients compared with the general population, but until now we have not had reliable estimates of the true extent of these conditions.  The review suggests harmful alcohol use is ten times higher in hospital inpatients, and alcohol dependence is eight times higher, compared with the UK general population.

Lead researcher Dr Emmert Roberts, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, says: ‘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. 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.’

The review also found that harmful use of alcohol is most prevalent in mental health inpatient units and alcohol dependence is found most commonly in patients attending accident and emergency departments.

Alcohol-related conditions are estimated to cost the NHS approximately £3.5 billion per year, and without in-hospital screening many alcohol-related conditions may be missed and not receive appropriate treatment.

The researchers say accurate prevalence estimates are vital to inform policy makers of the scale of the problem and are particularly timely given the UK government’s development of a new alcohol strategy and the NHS 10-year plan, which includes funding allocations to combat alcohol-related conditions.  

The full paper is available online.