The ER costs of treating drunk drivers

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Drunk driving continues to be a major problem across the U.S., (especially in more rural areas where intoxicated revelers who don’t assign a designated driver don’t have many public transportation options). In 2008 alone, 11,773 people were killed in crashes where one of the drivers was over the legal limit, according to the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That figure represents nearly a third of all deaths caused by traffic accidents that year.

In addition to the emotional and physical toll of drunk driving, the financial fallout is considerable—costing $51 billion annually in the U.S., with some $7.6 billion of that amount going to medical costs, according to estimates from 2002. While those figures may already seem alarmingly high, according to research published in the October issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine, they may be more significant when analyzed in the context of individual emergency rooms: treating drunk drivers median ER costs are about four times as much as sober drivers’, researchers say.

The study included 1,618 emergency room patients between the ages of 21 and 65 who were minimally injured while driving, and were admitted at the emergency room of a Rhode Island hospital in 2005. The researchers found that the median cost for treating intoxicated patients was $5,884, compared with $1,346 for sober drivers. Treating drunk drivers cost so much more, they explain, primarily due to the differences in number of tests ordered and duration of stay. More than two thirds of the cost difference between patient types was down to imaging—nearly all drunk drivers, 91%, had imaging tests, compared to 70% of sober drivers, (presumably because those patients were less capable of explaining to doctors what hurt and where, though the researchers don’t expressly state that). Additionally, drunk drivers generally stayed in the ER 3.3 hours longer—in part because doctors had to wait for them to sober up before release.

These findings are too preliminary to actually influence current ER practices, but the researchers suggest that further study could help determine means to more effectively distribute care to inebriated patients with minor injuries. Additionally, they point out that the frequency of ER visits from intoxicated motorists suggests that the problem of drunk driving still goes largely underreported in the U.S.