Intoxicated ER patients see fewer potentially fatal problems

Although drinking too much alcohol impairs judgment and motor skills, intoxicated trauma-center patients also appear to be less likely to have potentially fatal problems such as heart and renal failure, a statistical study by a University of Illinois at Chicago professor found.

The study by assistant professor Lee Friedman examined data from state records for 190,612 patients seen between 1995 and 2009 at trauma centers, such as hospital emergency rooms, who had a blood-alcohol content between zero and 1.5 percent when admitted. Of these patients, 6,733 died after admission. Those who arrived dead or who died in the emergency room were not included in the research.

Friedman found that if a patient already has alcohol in his or her body, the patient was less likely to die in a trauma center. Patients with alcohol in their system have substantially lower rates of renal failure, heart attack or heart failure, Friedman found.

"Specifically in hospital mortality rates or survivability, I found that the benefits are stronger with more alcohol in the system. But even smaller amounts of alcohol showed benefits in decreasing mortality," said Friedman, who teaches environmental and occupational health sciences at UIC. His research was published in the December issue of the scholarly journal Alcohol.

"The next stage is to understand the biomechanism" that explains these lower rates, he said. "If we can understand the mechanism, there is substantial therapeutic potential here. (However,) that must be understood before we develop treatments."

Dr. Ali Salim, director of the General Surgery Residency Educational Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, called the study results controversial.

"The results of the study confirm some recent findings on the association of alcohol and survival following trauma. I thought the author's statistical work was quite impressive and the data set he utilized was quite robust," Salim said. "A major limitation of the study (and others like it) is the selection bias: For example, only 29 percent of the data set had toxicological exams for blood-alcohol concentration." 

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