Up to 15% of attendances at hospital A&E departments are due to people being extremely drunk, and in periods of national celebration, such as New Year’s Eve, that figure can soar as high as 70%.
Now the NHS is considering a national rollout of ‘drunk tanks’ in major towns and cities – supervised places where intoxicated people can sleep it off or recover in safety, but without clogging up busy A&E services.
Such ‘drunk tanks’ – officially termed Alcohol Intoxication Management Services – already exist in a handful of cities, but in most places people who are hopelessly or dangerously drunk usually end up at A&E, often taken there for their own safety by police or ambulance crews. It means people needing to visit A&E with a genuine medical emergency could face delays or find themselves sharing waiting rooms with drunken, loud and sometimes aggressive people.
Nationally it is estimated that 12 to 15% of all attendances at A&E are due to acute alcohol intoxication. That figure is all year round, although it peaks on Friday and Saturday evenings, when more people go out drinking. But during periods such as Christmas and New Year, the number of alcohol-related attendances at A&E can be as high as 70%, creating a major problem for hard-pressed medical personnel.
Over the festive period just gone, NHS England has been closely monitoring alcohol-related attendances at A&E. It will use the findings to decide during this year whether ‘drunk tanks’ should be routinely used to ease the pressure on A&E and 999 ambulance services over the Christmas and New Year period in future years.
Instead of being taken to A&E, intoxicated people would be taken to these ‘drunk tanks’, located within or close to the centres where most people are out drinking. These would be supervised places where people could sober up or even sleep off their intoxication while being monitored to ensure their safety. Trials have already been carried out in places such as Newcastle, Bristol, Manchester and Cardiff, where the problem is most acute.
NHS England has said its experience over the New Year period just gone will help shape its approach to dealing with alcohol intoxication in future years. Scaling up the use of supervised ‘drunk tanks’ across the country could help emergency services cope better with extreme seasonal pressures.
Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, said the public need to use A&E departments and other emergency services responsibly, especially during their busiest periods: “When the health service is pulling out all the stops to care for sick and vulnerable patients who rightly and genuinely need our support, it’s frankly selfish when ambulance paramedics and A&E nurses have to be diverted to looking after revellers who have overindulged and who just need somewhere to safely to sleep it off,” he said.
“NHS doesn’t stand for ‘National Hangover Service’, but in the run-up to Christmas, having been out with ambulance crews on night shifts in London and the West Midlands, I saw first-hand how paramedics and A&Es are being called on to deal with drunk and often aggressive people.”
A study is being carried out by the National Institute for Health Research into whether Alcohol Intoxication Management Services (drunk tanks) should be in widespread and routine use to deal with inebriated patients. Those currently operating range from council-funded ‘safe havens’ to ‘booze buses’ run by charities or volunteers, but there could be a strong case for a regularised national approach to the problem in future.