Drug users and legal highs put strain on hospitals

Drug-related admissions to NHS Lothian hospitals have soared in the past five years, with government and health officials blaming the increase on legal highs and “an ageing cohort of drug users.”
Drug users need more medical help as they age. Picture: GettyDrug users need more medical help as they age. Picture: Getty
Drug users need more medical help as they age. Picture: Getty

Figures obtained under Freedom of Information laws show that there has been a steady and significant increase in drug-related admissions since 2010, with the Royal Infirmary’s annual intake of patients almost doubling from 761 to 1344.

Elsewhere, the Royal Edinburgh Hospital is being forced to deal with a marked increase in admissions, up 90 per cent since 2010, while the Western General’s figures for 2014 
represent a 39 per cent increase over the same period.

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Cases involving opioids, such as heroin, have been rising steadily across NHS Lothian hospitals, accounting for 959 admissions across all hospitals last year.

Jim Sherval, Specialist in Public Health NHS Lothian, said: “It is likely that the rise in admissions is linked to a number of factors including the rise of new psychoactive substances and also an ageing group of long-term drug users who are needing more medical interventions.

“We have seen the proportion of drug-related deaths related to heroin increase over the last three years [but] admission statistics are not a reliable indicator on their own of prevalence of an issue or a behaviour.”

It is understood that legal highs and new psychoactive substances are putting an increased strain on NHS 
resources in Lothian, with admissions labelled “other substances” increasing by an alarming 216 per cent since 2010.

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The 25 to 40-year-old age group make up the bulk of the figures, although the number of admissions among 41 to 60-year-olds has more than doubled since 2010 and is now three times what it was in 2009.

In response to the figures, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Since 2007/8, we have made record investment of over £224 million in front line drug treatment and support services recognising our commitment to the significant ambition of the Road to Recovery strategy.

“Fewer Scots are taking drugs – numbers are continuing to fall amongst the general adult population, and drug taking among young people is the lowest in a decade.

“It is recognised that there is a vulnerable group of people who have been using drugs for many years and who experience other chronic medical conditions alongside their drug use. As they are getting older, their risks of ill health are greater as are their risks of drug-related death, thus the number of related hospital stays are increasing.

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“New psychoactive substances present a significant challenge for our health, justice and third sector organisations which is why this government is doing all it can to tackle them.”

Regarding the future of legislation, the government statement continued: “The Scottish Government wished to have full responsibility for drugs, but this was not progressed by the Smith Commission.”