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Interview: RI Hospital ER chief: “There has to be a better way.”

December 14, 2012

This week, I’ve been covering Rhode Island’s efforts to change the way we deal with substance abusers who frequent the emergency room (part 1, part 2). I talked to emergency dispatchers, firefighters, addiction treatment specialists, public officials, and more. And I visited an alternative to the ER, a so-called “wet shelter” or sobering center in Cambridge, MA to see how that’s helping reduce ER visits.

Emergency room doctors are also on the front lines in this story, and that’s why I’m glad I got the chance to talk to Dr. Brian Zink, head of emergency medicine at Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals.  I’ve included the full interview, below, which you can listen to right on this page or download for later.

Every sizable city, says Zink, has a population of alcoholics and drug addicts whose addiction has gotten so bad they’re on the street and, often, quite ill. Providence is no different. An ambulance is called, the intoxicated person is brought to the emergency department, and doctors and nurses there are obligated to care for them until they sober up. They get spit on, there are fights, patients urinate on the floor. It can be frustrating, says Zink, for staff, mostly because they know it isn’t the best place to care for patients. But Zink and his colleagues decided to do something about it. They formed a coalition called “Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap,” got Rhode Island lawmakers’ attention, and are now helping formulate a plan to open a sobering center in Providence. The idea is to move people who simply need to sober up out of the emergency room, to a place where they can be offered substance abuse treatment and other resources, like housing. That, says Zink, would not only mean that addicts get more appropriate treatment. It would save money and free up beds:

“At any one time, we’ll have probably six to 15 of our precious treatment spots occupied by people who are simply drunk or under the effects of drugs and just sobering up, basically…. If you look at a Friday night or  Saturday night…. we might have 20 to 25 beds with alcohol-intoxicated people.”

Learn more about the perspective of ER doctors, the impact of “frequent fliers” on the ER, and why now is the right time for change in this interview with Dr. Brian Zink.

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