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Despite Barriers, More ER Docs Screening for Alcohol

The AMA commends a growing number of emergency room physicians that are screening patients for alcohol use, despite several legal and insurance industry obstacles that hinder the practice.

As reported in the New York Times, many doctors are doing more than just patching up patients injured in alcohol-related car crashes—they’re using the opportunity to identify people who might have alcohol problems and refer them to help. As many as 25 percent of trauma patients in the ER are intoxicated, according to the article, and even those who are sober often have drinking problems.

Despite the troubling statistics, insurance regulations in most states actually discourage doctors from screening for alcohol use. The Uniform Accident and Sickness Policy Provision Law (UPPL), recognized by 42 states, says that insurers don’t have to cover medical costs if the patient was injured while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. So if doctors detect elevated blood alcohol levels in patients, the hospital risks being stuck with the bill. A few states also require doctors to report intoxicated patients to law enforcement authorities.

Doctors providing triage in the ER already have enough to worry about without laws and regulations that needlessly victimize those suffering from addiction and substance abuse problems. Despite these barriers, many ER physicians are taking the time for a brief alcohol screening intervention—one that can reduce drinking-driving crashes and other recurring injuries. Because many patients are uninsured and don’t seek regular medical care, a visit to the ER might be the only chance doctors have to investigate potential alcohol problems. We think it’s a chance worth taking.

Related Links

Arcane Laws Hinder ER Interventions for Alcohol, Other Drugs
Join Together Online, 9/13/2002