Page last updated at 00:05 GMT, Friday, 1 January 2010

Rising alcohol addiction costs 'could cripple the NHS'

Troubled man drinking wine
Alcohol misuse is a major problem for the NHS

The cost of treating the growing number of people drinking heavily threatens to cripple NHS hospitals, warn experts.

If the trend continues the burden will be unsustainable, the Royal College of Physicians and NHS Confederation say.

With a quarter of England's population consuming hazardous amounts, alcohol addiction already costs the NHS more than £2.7 billion a year, they say.

Services need work together to avert a crisis, with the emphasis on prevention, they say in a joint report.

Currently, most of the money is being spent on hospital and ambulance services.

This burden is no longer sustainable
Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians

But hospital care alone cannot solve the problem, the report says.

Increasing out-of-hospital provision could be more cost effective, it says.

This would include GPs screening and counselling their patients on alcohol misuse.

Trials suggest that brief advice from a GP, or practice nurse, leads to one in eight people reducing their drinking to within sensible levels.

This, says the report, compares well with smoking cessation, where only one in 20 change their behaviour.

Changing the way alcohol-related services are delivered could save hospitals 1,000 bed days and Primary Care Trusts up to £650,000 a year, experts estimate.

Breaking point

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: "The nation's growing addiction to alcohol is putting an immense strain on health services, especially in hospitals, costing the NHS over £2.7 billion each year."

And this sum has doubled in under five years.

"This burden is no longer sustainable," he said.

"The role of the NHS should not just be about treating the consequences of alcohol related-harm but also about active prevention, early intervention, and working in partnership with services in local communities to raise awareness of alcohol-related harm."

Steve Barnett, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: "We hope this report helps to outline the scale of the problems facing the NHS and acts as a warning that if we carry on drinking in the way that we are currently, the bar bill will be paid in worse health and a health system struggling to cope."

A Department of Health spokesperson welcomed the report: "We agree the level of alcohol-related hospital admissions, crime, and deaths are still unacceptable.

"We are now seeing a real will by the NHS for change and improvement in alcohol services.

"Two thirds of PCTs have adopted reducing alcohol-related hospital admissions as a local priority for the first time.

"The department is providing Primary Care Trusts with the support, tools and incentives to deliver alcohol services in their own areas effectively according to local needs."

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