Estimating the Burden of Alcohol on Ambulance Callouts through Development and Validation of an Algorithm Using Electronic Patient Records

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jun 11;18(12):6363. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18126363.


Background: Alcohol consumption places a significant burden on emergency services, including ambulance services, which often represent patients' first, and sometimes only, contact with health services. We aimed to (1) improve the assessment of this burden on ambulance services in Scotland using a low-cost and easy to implement algorithm to screen free-text in electronic patient record forms (ePRFs), and (2) present estimates on the burden of alcohol on ambulance callouts in Scotland.

Methods: Two paramedics manually reviewed 5416 ePRFs to make a professional judgement of whether they were alcohol-related, establishing a gold standard for assessing our algorithm performance. They also extracted all words or phrases relating to alcohol. An automatic algorithm to identify alcohol-related callouts using free-text in EPRs was developed using these extracts.

Results: Our algorithm had a specificity of 0.941 and a sensitivity of 0.996 in detecting alcohol-related callouts. Applying the algorithm to all callout records in Scotland in 2019, we identified 86,780 (16.2%) as alcohol-related. At weekends, this percentage was 18.5%.

Conclusions: Alcohol-related callouts constitute a significant burden on the Scottish Ambulance Service. Our algorithm is significantly more sensitive than previous methods used to identify alcohol-related ambulance callouts. This approach and the resulting data have potential for the evaluation of alcohol policy interventions as well as for conducting wider epidemiological research.

Keywords: Scotland; algorithm development; ambulance callouts; burden of alcohol; paramedics; routine health records.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Ambulances
  • Electronic Health Records*
  • Emergency Medical Services*
  • Humans
  • Scotland / epidemiology