Breathalysers are an ideal first line screening tool when dealing with potentially intoxicated patients in the ER


“When a patient has been in a motor vehicle accident, it can be difficult to assess whether they are under the influence of alcohol or suffering from the effects of a medical complaint such as a concussion. If a patient is under the influence of alcohol their treatment is affected, as certain pain medications interact with alcohol, which aggravates their sedative effect. In addition, an intoxicated patient is treated in a different patient category as someone who is not capable of making sound decisions on their own, similarly to children or those with mental disabilities,” explains Xander Loubser, Paramedic at BestCare.

In addition, putting an intoxicated person under anaesthetic can be dangerous, as there is a risk of them aspirating the contents of their stomach. Doctors have to very carefully weigh up the risk of operating versus the risk of waiting for the results of a blood test to come back. If an operation is deemed necessary immediately all parties involved need to sign off on the fact that there would be no chance of survival otherwise.

There is also the chance that the patient is not intoxicated at all and is suffering from some other condition causing confusion, slurring and other symptoms similar to those experienced by a person under the influence. In these cases, waiting for the results of the blood test, only for them to come back negative, will be detrimental to patient care.

“Blood tests for alcohol intoxication take time to produce results, and in the meantime patients may not be receiving the care they require. In addition, there is a cost involved and a constant argument over who is required to carry these costs, especially if the results come back negative. The answer is fortunately a simple one,” says Rhys Evans, Managing Director at ALCO-Safe.

“A breathalyser test which not only gives a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reading but also the actual level of intoxication can be an invaluable tool in the ER and on ambulances. They are purchased as a once off cost, rather than an ongoing expense, and can easily be used to check all patients and obtain an instant result. Patients can therefore be given the most appropriate level of care instantly without additional time delay and expense,” he adds.

While a mouthpiece can be used and a standard test performed, this is not always possible with an injured, unconscious or heavily intoxicated person. In these instances a nasal canula can be used and the device set to sample manually, which will ensure that lung air can be sampled and a reading given for all patients. Breathalyser devices like these are used effectively in hospitals in the United Kingdom to improve patient care while controlling cost.

“All hospitals, both government and private, as well as ambulances, should be equipped with breathalyser tests as standard. They are a simple and inexpensive way to ensure that patients can be screened and treated appropriately, avoiding all of the negative consequences of treating patients suspected of being under the influence of alcohol,” Evans concludes.

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