What is causing N.W.T.'s 'dramatic spike' in alcohol-caused hospitalizations?

An emergency room doctor in the Northwest Territories said that he’s seen a “fairly dramatic spike in the last couple of years” in cases of alcohol-caused hospitalizations.

Dr. David Pontin says the influx may be due to an RCMP decision a few years ago

The Stanton Territorial Hospital under construction on Dec. 3, 2017, as seen from across Frame Lake. The Northwest Territories had the highest rate of alcohol-related hospitalizations in Canada in 2016-2017, six times the national average and double the Yukon rate. (Walter Strong/CBC)

An emergency room doctor in the Northwest Territories says he's seen a "fairly dramatic spike" in cases of alcohol-caused hospitalizations in the past few years — and it may be related to an RCMP decision.

Dr. David Pontin, who works at Stanton Territorial Hospital, said the spike could in part be because police changed the way officers deal with highly-intoxicated people. A few years ago Yellowknife RCMP began treating the issue as a health matter rather than a criminal one, and began directing those individuals to social services instead of police lock-up.

When that change was made the emergency room saw an influx of highly-intoxicated patients, said Pontin.

"It was painful."

But he said the change is positive.

"[It brought] the enormity of this problem out of the shadows and into the realm where it is most productively managed, which is in the health world," he said.

Pontin said the territorial government is working to help intoxicated patients. Recently it has worked on implementing the sobering centre.

He noted there's a chance the sobering centre service may increase the number of hospitalizations because of its on-site medical supervision.

The supervisors identify health issues that require medical attention at the hospital, which are "appropriate and were likely missed before," he said.

Glen Abernethy, Minister of Health and Social Services, said the sobering centre is one of the ways the territorial government is trying to address the high rate of alcohol-related hospitalization. 

The department has multiple action plans working to assist people with mental health and addictions issues, he added.

Dr. David Pontin, who works at Yellowknife's Stanton Territorial Hospital, says the influx of highly intoxicated patients at the hospital was a 'painful' but a positive change. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

It 'actually misses 80 per cent'

The Northwest Territories had the highest rate of these hospitalizations in Canada, according to the report by Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Tim Stockwell, director of the Canadian Centre for Substance Use Research (CISUR), was on the expert advisory panel for the report.

He said northern Canada has higher rates of alcohol-caused hospitalization than southern Canada. A couple of his speculations include the tendency to have "fly-in, fly-out workers" and having harsh winters that force people inside.

However, according to Stockwell, the report doesn't cover all hospitalizations related to alcohol. Things such as accidents caused by alcohol are missed.

So the report "actually misses 80 per cent" of the alcohol-related hospitalizations, he said.

In the coming weeks, CISUR is releasing a report that will look more broadly at hospitalizations related to alcohol. And it will address the costs associated with all kinds of substance use, such as alcohol, cannabis, tobacco and opioids.

Stockwell said the study will show that the territories have higher costs to deal with alcohol and tobacco.


Jamie Malbeuf is a reporter with CBC News, based in Fort McMurray. She started her career with CBC in 2017, after graduating from MacEwan University with a major in journalism. She covers a range of topics including health, justice and housing. Follow her on Twitter @JamieMalbeuf or email with a story idea.