Ambulance crews dealt with more than 230 alcohol-related call-outs a day in 2019 at an estimated cost of £31.5m, according to a new study.
Using a new method based on the notes taken by paramedics at the scene, researchers found that 86,780 ambulance call-outs in Scotland were identified as alcohol-related that year, a figure more than three times higher than previously thought.
The study detected an increasing trend of call-outs linked to alcohol over the period of 2016–2019 as well as a clear difference in the volume of call-outs between weekend days (Friday–Sunday) and weekdays (Monday–Thursday).
Using data from the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS), the team of researchers were able to build a “highly accurate” algorithm that searched paramedic notes in patient records for references to alcohol.
Applying this automated method to records from 2019, they found that one in six ambulance call-outs (16.2%) was alcohol-related. This rose to more than one in four (28.2%) at weekend night times (6pm to 6am).
The study involved researchers at the Universities of Glasgow, Stirling and Sheffield and SAS colleagues.
Professor Jim Lewsey, professor of medical statistics at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, said: “We have shown that there is a high burden of alcohol on ambulance call-outs in Scotland.
“This is particularly true at weekends, for call-outs involving younger people and for call-outs to addresses in areas with high levels of socio-economic deprivation.”
The algorithm showed that age was an important factor, with alcohol being related to approximately a quarter of call-outs for those under the age of 40, but less than 7% in those aged 70 and above.
Socio-economic deprivation was also found to be a factor, with alcohol related to 20% of call-outs to addresses in the most deprived areas, while for call-outs in the least deprived areas, 10% were alcohol-related.
Based on the average cost of an ambulance call-out in 2019, researchers estimate the total cost of alcohol-related call-outs at approximately £31.5m, though the exact figure would depend on the complexity of these calls compared with non-alcohol-related call-outs.
The algorithm detected an increase in the number of call-outs linked to alcohol over four years.
In 2016, the daily averages on weekdays and weekends were 161 and 243 respectively, whereas in 2019 they were 202 and 284.
Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, professor of alcohol policy and director of the Institute for Social Marketing and Health at the University of Stirling, is principal investigator for an overall study evaluating the impact of minimum unit pricing of alcohol on alcohol-related ambulance call-outs in Scotland.
She said: “As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, we all want to protect NHS services for when they are most needed.
“It is timely therefore to consider whether it is acceptable that over 230 ambulance call-outs every day are linked to alcohol when we have policy solutions that can reduce this burden.
“We are also conducting further research to understand what types of call-outs and drinking locations give rise to these figures and how they are experienced by paramedics.”
The study is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Dr Jim Ward, medical director at the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS), said: “This study is very welcome as it gives SAS the ability to better understand the impact alcohol has on the demand for ambulance response.
“Our frontline staff consistently see the serious effects unsafe levels of alcohol have on people’s lives and we would urge the public to drink responsibly.”
The work was funded by the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office.