Health care utilization of chronic inebriates

Lisa Thornquist, Michelle Biros, Robert Olander, Steven Sterner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Chronic inebriates often use emergency services, including the emergency department (ED), because they lack other resources or access to primary care. Because of their complicated medical needs, which are often exacerbated by acute intoxication and related illness or injury, a relatively small number of acutely intoxicated chronic inebriates can stretch ED resources and contribute to ED overcrowding. Objective: In order to address this, as well as overutilization of other county services, three county programs were developed (ethnic- and gender-specific supportive housing; intensive street case management) to reduce emergency resource utilization while still providing a safe environment. This study determined the effectiveness of these programs. The authors hypothesized that program enrollment would reduce medical and detoxification (detox) expenditures for this patient population. Methods: Pre- and postprogram comparisons were made on the number of detox and medical visits, insured days, and charges. Data were retrieved (with patients' written informed consent) from hospital and health plan billings and county databases. Descriptive statistics compared groups pre and post enrollment. Least-squares regression predicted total and non-inpatient medical charges. Results: Complete data were available for 92 of 122 patients (mean age = 47 years; 60% Native American; 93% male); seven had severe illnesses or injuries, skewing the mean. However, there were significant overall reductions in the median numbers of yearly detox visits (10 to 1) and medical visits (11 to 8), and in median medical charges ($5,436 to $2,770) and total health care charges ($9,297 to $5,218). The median number of days insured increased (284 to 353). By regression analysis, injury was the most important preprogram predictor of medical charges; illness drives charges post-entry. Alcohol-related visits added to the model before entry but disappeared post-entry. Conclusions: These programs reduced health care use for most patients. However, serious medical illness or injury in a small number of patients contributed heavily to resource utilization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)300-308
Number of pages9
JournalAcademic Emergency Medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2002


  • Alcoholics
  • Chronic inebriates
  • Emergency services
  • Health care utilization


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