College binges, blackouts big costs to health system

March 21, 2012

By University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

MADISON, Wis. — College students who require hospital emergency department visits because of injuries from alcohol-induced blackouts generate costs of up to $546,000 a year on a large university campus, according to research by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

The first-of-its-kind research findings were released as a Web First by the journal Health Affairs and will also appear in the journal’s April issue. The complete study can be found at: http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/early/2012/03/13/hlthaff.2010.1140.

Students who have alcohol-induced blackouts are conscious and able to perform normal functions such as walking, talking and driving a car. But they are not able to recall what they did while under the influence.

The research involved 954 high-risk drinkers at five college campuses (four in the U.S. and one in Canada) covering all of their emergency department visits between October 2004 and November 2009. They were interviewed six, 12, 18 and 24 months later. The sample was almost evenly divided between males and females, and 44 percent of the students were ages 18-20. The research determined the following:

Fifty-two percent of males and 50 percent of females at the start of the study had experienced an alcohol-induced blackout within the previous year.

Thirty percent of males and 27 percent of females reported visiting an emergency department for medical treatment in the 24 months they were followed in the study. Injuries ranged from broken bones to head and brain injuries.

Students who experienced six blackouts in the prior year were 70 percent more likely to be treated at the emergency department than students who consumed the same amount of alcohol, but did not have blackouts.

Alcohol-induced blackouts are common and costly among college drinkers,” said co-author Dr. Marlon Mundt, an assistant scientist for the department of family medicine. “Nationally, one in four college students suffered a blackout due to alcohol in the past year, and among our sample of high-risk drinkers, it was one in two. Students are drinking to the point of altering their memory function and landing themselves in the emergency department.

Blackouts seem to be pretty common and may lead to longer-term consequences, but we never hear anything about them,” Mundt added. “The point of my research was to shine a light on an understudied facet of college drinking and its implications with the health care system.”

According to the 2006 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey used to calculate emergency department costs, medical treatment for students injured as a result of alcohol-related blackouts could total between $469,000 and $546,000 at universities with enrollments greater than 40,000, depending on location.

This is clearly an understudied topic that warrants closer attention of university administrators, researchers and health care professionals,” said Mundt. “Targeting blackout alcohol users may provide the impetus for improving student health and for greatly reducing health care costs.”

Mundt added that future studies are needed to identify how interventions can help reduce injuries and medical expenses relating to alcohol-induced blackouts.

I think it points to a particular area of college drinking that needs more research and intervention focus,” he said. “This is a very large problem. We have something here that can identify a smaller subset of students who are at most risk for injuries and emergency department visits, and that our health care system is struggling to bear at the moment.”

Larissa Zakletskia, a database manager in the department of family medicine, assisted Dr. Mundt.

The research was funded by the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

From the March 21-27, 2012, issue

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