Women Less Likely To Be Referred to Detox After ER Visits

By Paul Gaita 02/10/17
Men were also more likely to ask for a detox referral than women, according to a new study.
People in ER waiting room

A new study finds that men who are admitted to a hospital emergency room (ER) are more than twice as likely to be there for issues with illicit drugs than women.

While past statistics have shown that men are more likely to use illicit drugs such as cocaine, prescription painkillers and hallucinogens than women, the percentage numbers have grown closer in recent years.

According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2011, the rate of drug use among men and women ages 12 to 17 was 10.8% and 9.3%, respectively. By 2012, those numbers were 9.6% and 9.5%.

Women in that age group were also more likely to be non-medical users of psychotherapeutic drugs like Xanax, klonopin and Ativan. But despite these numbers, men were 1.9 times more likely to receive a referral to detox from emergency room doctors, according to the new study.

Researchers from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University arrived at this conclusion by analyzing data collected between 2004 and 2011 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN).

Looking at more than 27.9 million drug-related visits to the ER by adult patients aged 18 years or more, their analysis revealed that men were 2.69 times more likely to visit an ER for illicit drug use than women, and 1.90 times more likely to receive a detox referral.

Men were also more likely to seek detox at the ER than women (41.4% to 33.2%)—and among those who sought detox, a slightly greater percentage of men received a referral compared to women (24.5% to 23.1%).

Overall, the number of both men and women with drug use problems who received detox referrals was low—5.9% to 3.2%, respectively—which is consistent with previous research that found that 27% of ER patients had substance abuse treatment needs that went unmet, the study authors noted. 

The researchers initially considered a variety of factors for the rates. They note that women often have a greater severity of addiction and a faster progression to dependence, known as "telescoping."

However, this did not translate to greater numbers of treatment referrals for women or men, suggesting that both genders face considerable roadblocks in receiving treatment.

The researchers suggested that this could be the result of limited access to such programs, the high cost, and the possibility that patients' drug issues were not deemed severe enough to warrant a referral. 

But, as the study authors noted, "There is no 'safe' or 'low risk' amount of illicit drug use or non-medical use of prescription drugs, and virtually all illicit drug users should receive some type of referral."

They further suggested that ER doctors should remain especially vigilant in regard to women and substance use disorders, and strive for higher treatment admissions for people with drug problems.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.