THE BLOG

NHS and Government Have No Policy on Alcohol

05/06/2013 10:39 BST | Updated 04/08/2013 10:12 BST
Shutterstock

I had to laugh when I saw the government's reaction to the recent report that hospital admissions due to alcohol had more than doubled in nine years.

"It's encouraging to see that more people are getting help for problems with alcohol" said a Department of Health spokesperson, quoted in the Telegraph, ignoring the fact that only about one in 17 people with alcohol problems get expert help .

"These figures prove" gushed the spokesperson in a statement of the obvious, "that alcohol is causing harm to the health of hundreds of thousands of people". The part that really made me laugh was when the anonymous health official said "we must continue to act."

Taken literally, this statement about acting is spot on. My old Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word "act" as "carry out (an incident or story) in mimicry." It's becoming increasingly obvious that the Health Department and NHS have no policy about the ever-increasing alcohol epidemic beyond repeating "something must be done" and making sure that nothing gets in the way of the drinks companies maximising their profits.

But what does the government say it's doing about the epidemic of drinking? If we look at the next part of our anonymous Health Department source we can get a clue: "we are already improving prevention by funding alcohol risk assessments at GPs and encouraging increased access to alcohol liaison nurses in hospitals." My experience at a residential rehab clinic tells me that this is absolute nonsense.

In the rehab sector it's well known that GPs know little about the treatment of alcohol addiction; apart from anything else they're not trained for it. For patients who are addicted to heroin or hard drugs they can offer a substitute addiction - methadone - but for alcohol the only drug they can offer is antabuse which creates a violent reaction with alcohol but, according to this source, "it does not reduce the person's craving for alcohol, nor does it treat any alcohol withdrawal symptoms." If not given under strict supervision it can cause "cardiovascular collapse...convulsions, and death."

What the GPs are not allowed to do is refer alcoholics to residential rehab centres, where their chances of recovery can skyrocket to over 50%. Most GPs don't even know the names and contact numbers of their local rehab clinics, and many have closed down since the NHS has stopped referring alcoholics to them. There are now less that 50 rehab clinics in the UK and those which are still surviving have many empty beds (while the A&E wards are full of people with alcohol poisoning).

The other part of the Department of Health promise is equally revealing. They will offer "increased access to alcohol liaison nurses in hospitals." This too is an illusion. First of all the word "liaison" suggest a referral to some sort of treatment, but this is a mirage: they are not allowed to refer alcoholics for the residential rehab treatment their patients so desperately need.

You will be hard pressed to find a single nurse who thinks that an A & E ward is the appropriate place to deal with alcohol abuse. They are not trained for it, they have other priorities and they know that people with addictions need psychiatric care. And yet there were 1.2 million general hospital admissions in England last year attributed to drinking, an increase of more than 50% since 2003. The doctors and nurses in Britain's A&E wards are carrying the can for the total absence of an alcohol policy in the NHS.

What can be done? The key thing that all political parties need to do is accept the fact that the abstinence based approach of alcoholics anonymous really does work; these community groups have helped millions of people all over the world and every evening thousands of AA meetings take place, helping adherents live "a day at a time." But there is a spiritual element involved in AA and this seems to scare politicians .

Jonathon Simpson, the Mayor of Campden has the right idea. He says "It is astonishing to think that drug and alcohol education is not on the National Curriculum and that few schools discuss the subject at all." The work being done in Campden's schools by the Amy Winehouse Foundation sounds like a step in the right direction. People in recovery "utilize their own experiences as recovering addicts to give young people a better understanding of the consequences of drug and alcohol misuse. These 'share' sessions also provide a catalyst for further discussion around the underlying issues that can lead to drug or alcohol misuse such as low self-esteem, peer pressure and risky behaviour."

Perhaps the NHS officials should pop down to Camden and see what's going on in the schools there.