Report finds 'unintentional poisoning' is leading cause of ER visits for homeless Albertans

A new report is providing an unprecedented look at the socio-economic impacts of hospital ER admissions in Alberta. Dan Grummett reports.

A report from the Injury Prevention Centre published in May found that “unintentional or undetermined poisoning” is the leading cause of injury that results in houseless Albertans seeking emergency medical care.

For the report, the Injury Prevention Centre compiled data from Alberta Health and consulted with Bissell Centre. It breaks down the data into five categories: unintentional or undetermined poisoning, violence, falls, natural or environmental injuries, and suicide or self-inflicted injuries.

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There was an average of 5,814 injury-related emergency department visits per year of people experiencing houselessness.

The report found 25 per cent of emergency department visits were due to poisonings, with 1,438 visits each year.

“This can include poisoning through substances such as drugs or medications that are taken in the wrong dosages or in dangerous combinations,” the study found.

“A preventative measure for injuries in that particular category could involve facilities like safe injection sites,” explained Kathy Belton, associate director of the Injury Prevention Centre and adjunct professor in the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health.

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The second leading cause of injury-related visits was as a result of violence/injury purposely incited, which accounted for 19 per cent, with an average of 1,121 visits each year.

This is the first report in Alberta to provide data on injury-related emergency department visits by people experiencing houselessness.

“This is the first step in understanding what the injury issues are,” Belton said. “What we need to do now as a centre and as a province is to look at effective interventions for this population, for these injuries.”

She added that preventable injury can cost the health-care system upwards of $7 billion per year.

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The report also indicated that 17 per cent of individuals ended up leaving the emergency department without receiving treatment, although the data doesn’t detail whether this is due to perceived stigma, difficulties accessing health care or some other reason.

“Drawing attention to not only the additional risks faced by people experiencing houselessness, but also the difficulty accessing care for those injuries, is something that I feel is underreported and under-discussed in our society,” said Laurence Braun-Woodbury, Bissell Centre’s Director of Service Integration and Advocacy.

Bissell Centre uses strategies to reduce barriers to accessing healthcare, including programs like StreetWorks, working with specialized medical providers such as the Boyle McCauley Health Centre and training the case management team to advocate in health-care settings.

Having concrete data will help create solutions that target specific needs of this population, advocates say.

“Using evidence and actually knowing what the issues are in Alberta, and addressing them effectively is our best chance at reducing the cost of injury on the health-care system,” Belton said.

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“Being able to have hard numbers to point to when talking about specific needs really allows me to go to funders and say, ‘We need additional programming in this space at this time,'” Braun-Woodbury added.

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