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FEB 27/2015

Will strengthening alcohol policies tackle binge drinking?

The level of binge-drinking, especially among young people, is constantly a news-worthy subject, with many experts sharing concerns about how this will have an impact on the health service over the next few years.

Many healthcare professionals, whether they are in social care, or nurses and doctors, have seen the impact of alcohol abuse first hand. This can be in the emergency room with a teenager needing their stomach pumped or at a later stage when a liver transplant is the only treatment option left. 

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), liver disease is the only cause of death that continues to rise year-on-year, with 5,000 deaths caused every year by alcohol-related liver disease.

To try and limit this trend, the government is supporting the EU to strengthen its alcohol policies, but will this do anything to prevent binge-drinking from having such an impact on the NHS, and will it discourage future abuse?

Action Plan on Alcohol

According to the EU's announcement, an updated Alcohol Strategy would focus on the importance of appropriate and well-enforced age limits, as well as strengthening the call for protecting minors from alcohol advertising.

This is in light of an EU Action Plan on Alcohol, which aimed to focus on binge-drinking and young people.  In relation to alcohol labelling, the announcement states that "the consumer has a right to make informed choices about the products they purchase", and wants to bring alcohol packaging in line with non-alcoholic beverage packaging. In addition, the bodies also want to include energy and other nutritional information to help consumers make their decision.

The document stresses that addressing alcohol-related harm is crucial for reducing health inequalities, with the most deprived being at the highest level of risk.

Although this is a positive move, there are still issues related to preventing and treating liver disease, especially where locum and short-term staff are concerned. 

Long term problems

One of the main issues when it comes to treating patients with liver or alcohol-related problems is that there is not enough time for nurses, doctors or social carers to make an impact. Often people with such health issues only come to the attention of professionals when they are already in a fairly ill position.

This is especially apparent for locum professionals, as they have far less time to try and help patients in this situation. A key problem in this area, as with many health problems linked with abuse, is that many patients are embarrassed about their situation. This can lead to people not being forthcoming or open about the true scale of the problem, making it exceptionally difficult for agency nurses and locum doctors to significantly help the bigger issue.

For many nurses and doctors, they don't have the information about the patient's medical history, which can make it difficult to identify whether it's a one-off health problem or the sign of something bigger and more serious. This is especially true in young people who may come to A&E with alcohol problems. They are more likely to hide the truth, out of fear of judgement or someone finding out, and there is rarely the time to press them for further information, especially if they don't want to be honest.

However, this does mean that social care workers are at an advantage. With more developed skills in identifying young people who may be at risk of abuse, they are in the best position to help control the impact of alcohol-related problems and overcome its unique challenges. If this has been identified as a key problem at a specific trust or hospital, it could be advantageous to bolster the workforce with a social care worker to be on hand to identify and support such patients.

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