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Friday, January 28, 2022

UW-Madison study finds student alcohol abuse can force schools to foot medical bills

College students who black out from drinking alcohol can cost large universities roughly a half-million dollars per year in emergency room visits, according to research conducted by two members of UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health.

On a campus with more than 40,000 students, costs to the school for blackout-related ER visits can range from $469,000 to $546,000 annually, according to Marlon Mundt and Larissa Zakletskaia, the study’s authors and UW-Madison faculty members.

The study, which was released online Wednesday and will appear in the Health Affairs medical journal’s April issue, is based on data drawn from a five-year study of intoxication and emergency room visits at five college campuses, including UW-Madison.

The study found that about half of the 954 students admitted to emergency rooms had blacked out from alcohol in the previous year. Students who had suffered six or more blackouts were 70 percent more likely to be in the ER than students who drank similarly but did not black out.

While the link made between students’ blackout-tendencies and the likelihood of visiting the emergency room is a new one, the findings correlate with larger recognized trends of alcohol abuse, according to University Health Services Executive Director Dr. Sarah Van Orman.

“When we see students experiencing blackouts, or having trouble with the law, or getting into fights when drinking…those are markers for other kinds of serious consequences, like injuries,” Van Orman said. “Although this is kind of a new finding, it fits with what we see overall.”

The estimated annual cost of blackout ER visits is also not a revelation, Van Orman added.

“The idea that alcohol misuse and abuse costs money is certainly not a new one,” she said, pointing to the Wisconsin Department of Health’s estimate that the annual cost of alcohol misuse statewide is $2.8 billion. “As a campus, there’s a lot we can do, but there’s a lot [to be done] about our community and state, as well.”

UHS screens all students using its services for alcohol abuse, and early feedback on the impact of a new counseling program for first-time alcohol policy violators has been “positive,” she said.

Regardless of UHS’ offerings and support, Van Orman acknowledged that alcohol abuse treatment is as effective as students’ willingness to seek it.

“It’s hard [for students] to recognize when drinking and alcohol use goes from having good time to something that puts you at risk,” she said.

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