EMS triage and transport of intoxicated individuals to a detoxification facility instead of an emergency department

Ann Emerg Med. 2013 Feb;61(2):175-84. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2012.09.004. Epub 2012 Nov 7.


Study objective: We evaluate the effectiveness and safety of emergency medical services (EMS) provider use of a checklist to triage alcohol-inebriated patients directly to a detoxification facility, rather than an emergency department (ED).

Methods: A retrospective cohort study was conducted of all patients evaluated during a 2-year period, from 2003 to 2005, by EMS providers who used a detoxification evaluation checklist to aid in triage decisionmaking. Patients who did not meet detoxification evaluation checklist criteria were transported to an ED. Twelve-hour follow-up was solicited for patients taken to the detoxification center. Hospital records of inebriated patients transported to an ED were reviewed to assess ultimate need for ED care.

Results: Seven hundred eighteen patient encounters were reviewed. One hundred thirty-eight of these patients (19.2%) were transported to the detoxification facility, whereas 580 (80.8%) were transported to an ED; 339 patients transported to an ED were ultimately deemed to have required ED care. The criteria that most commonly excluded transport to the detoxification center were an inability to ambulate with minimal assistance (N=334) and an unwillingness to cooperate with the physical examination (N=195). Low-acuity adverse events were observed in 4 subjects (0.6%) initially transported to the detoxification center who then required subsequent transport to an ED. No high-acuity clinical complications were identified at any time. The use of the detoxification evaluation checklist resulted in high sensitivity (99%; 95% confidence interval 97% to 100%) and low specificity (42%; 95% confidence interval 37% to 48%) in predicting need for ED care.

Conclusion: Our analysis suggests that field triage criteria can be used effectively to safely divert inebriated patients to a detoxification facility rather than an ED, with minimal adverse events. Use of the detoxification evaluation checklist resulted in substantial ED overtriage, and further refinement of the detoxification evaluation checklist criteria is needed to reduce it.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alcoholic Intoxication / therapy*
  • Checklist / standards
  • Checklist / statistics & numerical data
  • Emergency Medical Services / methods*
  • Emergency Medical Services / statistics & numerical data
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Substance Abuse Treatment Centers* / statistics & numerical data
  • Transportation of Patients*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Triage / methods*
  • Triage / standards
  • Young Adult