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Doctors are seeing more patients for alcohol-related problems

During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Sam Elfassy noticed a disturbing trend.

The gastroenterologist at St. Joseph’s Health Center in Toronto often asks patients about their drinking habits as he treats chronic liver disease. But the responses he began to receive were alarming: most of his patients said they were drinking more than before, even those who never drank regularly.

“I see a lot more patients going from one or two drinks a day to three, four, five, six and beyond,” Elfassy said.

This trend became apparent six months into the pandemic, Elfassy said, and has persisted. With restrictions to curb Omicron, such as closing bars, gyms and restaurants, Eflassy and other doctors fear the rise in alcohol consumption will worsen with people stuck at home.

“I’m very worried now with this new wave that we’re going to start seeing a new wave in the next two months,” Elfassy said.

Several data points during the pandemic indicate an increase in alcohol consumption, particularly among adults in their 30s. Hospitalization figures from the Canadian Institute for Health Information reveal about 4,300 additional hospital stays for chronic alcohol-related medical conditions, such as liver disease or alcohol-induced pancreatitis , during the first 16 months of the pandemic in Canada.

There were also 8,000 additional hospitalizations for mental and behavioral disorders due to alcohol consumption. The age group experiencing the greatest increase is that of 30-39 years; their hospitalizations are up 22% from pre-pandemic levels.

Tracy Johnson, director of health system analysis at CIHI, said this trend departs from pre-pandemic trends seen in hospitals, highlighting how COVID-19 has changed Canadians’ drinking habits. Previously, many people hospitalized for drinking were between the ages of 10 and 29 and ended up in the emergency room after drinking at a social event.

The younger group “presented to the emergency room with effects of alcohol consumption, such as intoxication or poisoning, because they are going to party,” Johnson said. “All of a sudden, especially in the first half of the pandemic, you see they couldn’t get together,” and ER visits dropped dramatically.

The flip side, however, is that hospitals are seeing an increase in admissions of people in their 30s who may have already struggled with substance abuse and can easily buy alcohol and consume it at home.

“The assumption is that if you already had a problem, the pandemic wasn’t good for you,” Johnson said, adding that men from low-income neighborhoods have been admitted to hospital or emergency rooms for drug use. alcohol at much higher levels than others. Population.

Economic data on alcohol sales also indicate changes. An analysis of Statistics Canada data by James MacKillop, a McMaster University researcher focused on psychiatry and behavioral sciences, found that national alcohol sales between March 2020 and June 2021 increased by 5.5% , which equates to an additional $1.86 billion spent on alcohol than expected.

It’s hard to decipher whether an increase in sales equates to an increase in harmful drinking habits, but MacKillop noted that for most of this time, recreational drinking opportunities like bars or restaurants were closed, which has led to the possibility of more people drinking alone at home.

“We know that solitary drinking is generally a high risk factor for alcohol problems,” MacKillop said.

As the pandemic drags on, doctors fear these worrying trends will continue. Dr. Andrew Pinto, a family physician at Unity Health in Toronto, said some signs are already pointing to yes.

“In my clinical work, I’ve seen more people drink, and that’s usually part of stress management,” Pinto said.

He added that stress is resurfacing among his patients lately, with the rising number of COVID-19 cases and continued uncertainty. This, especially when the pandemic seemed to be coming to an end in the fall, when the number of cases was low.

“Things seemed to be improving, and now it’s become a very difficult situation,” Pinto said. He is most worried about who has lost their job or income, those who have precarious housing and those who are fending for themselves without any social support.

He added that he is also concerned that people who need help have been waiting for him for a long time. When referring his patient to mental health and addictions services, whether to other hospitals or community programs, Pinto has found that resources are stretched and space is limited.

“Need has exceeded supply for many of these services,” he said. Community support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, he said, have also been forced to partially move their operations online. Those who couldn’t access the group as a result really struggled, Pinto said.

Regarding chronic diseases that develop due to heavy alcohol consumption, Elfassy said he fears that prolonged substance use will cause irreversible damage to their health. “I think there’s going to be people left with pretty serious and debilitating chronic conditions from all that intake over a few years.”

One of the issues Elfassy has noticed is that people’s substance use habits often only become apparent when it’s too late and require hospitalization, whether from an injury. or a chronic illness.

That’s why he encourages people to open up conversations about substance use with loved ones whenever possible.

“A lot of times my family members tell me they didn’t even know someone was drinking that much alcohol until they ended up in the hospital.”