Northern territories have highest rate of alcohol, drug-related hospitalization: study

The Canadian Institute for Health Information released a new report that shows the highest rates in 2017-2018 are found in the three northern territories.

'That's a lot more than heart attacks and strokes combined,' says CIHI study author

New data shows more than 400 Canadians are hospitalized every day as a direct result of substance use. In the North, that number can be up to four times higher.

Canada's three northern territories have the highest rate of hospital stays because of harm caused by alcohol and drugs, according to a new report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI). 

In its 2017 to 2018 data released Thursday, CIHI numbers show more than 400 Canadians are hospitalized every day as a direct result of using these substances — which includes alcohol, opioids, cannabis, cocaine, and hallucinogens, among other mixed or unknown substances.

In the North, the rate of hospitalization for substance use is even higher — more than four times the national average.

At the hospital, harm by substance use can take the form of injuries or liver cirrhosis due to alcohol, seizures due to substance withdrawal, or a person developing psychosis after using cannabis.

The study has found more than 155,000 hospital stays were due to substance use across the country in 2017 to 2018.

"To put that in context, that's a lot more than heart attacks and strokes combined," says Mélanie Josée Davidson, director of CIHI's health system performance, and one of the authors of this study.

The average Canadian rate is 477 cases per a population of 100,000.

That's a lot more than heart attacks and strokes combined.- Mélanie Josée Davidson, CIHI study author

In Nunavut, that number is 870. In the Yukon, it's more than double the national average rate at 1,022.

But the Northwest Territories had the highest rate of hospital stays due to substance use in the country — with a rate of 2,015 cases per 100,000 people, more than four times the national rate.

Most northern communities have a notably smaller population pool — for instance, about 20,000 in Yellowknife — which is far from the 100,000 standard used to calculate the rate. The study also does not include numbers for children younger than 10 years old, nor hospital stays for reasons partially due to substance use. 

'Territorial trend' of alcohol hospitalizations

About half of hospitalizations nationally are due to alcohol.

Davidson says in Yukon, that number is closer to 80 percent.

"It's also very high in the Northwest Territories. So it does seem to be a territorial trend," says Davidson.

The line at the top of each bar graph shows the confidence interval (CI), which is used to establish whether the indicator result is statistically different from the average. The width of the CI illustrates the degree of variability associated with the rate. For example, a province or territory might have a wide CI if there is a small number of cases and the results are less stable. Indicator values are estimated to be accurate within the upper and lower CI 19 times out of 20 (95% CI). (CIHI)

Nationally, the study shows there are two peaks in age groups that end up more in the hospital — people between 25 and 34, and people between 50 and 64 years old.

On average, two out of three hospital stays are by men. But that's not the case for teenagers from 10 to 19 years old, says Davidson.

In that age group, there were more girls than boys hospitalized across Canada for substance use, she says. Cannabis is one of the main drivers for that group.

"Teenage girls haven't fully grown yet and their metabolisms are quite adjusted, so they might think that they can consume more than they actually can physiologically," explained Davidson.

One in 10 hospitalizations in Canada are related to harm caused by opioid use, the study states.

Davidson says she hopes the study can help educate the public, and also be used by governments and health planners to understand the scope of services needed across the country.

"Alcohol and cannabis are a lot more acceptable and socialized in our culture and we sometimes forget that those can also have harms ... both in the short term and in the long term," says Davidson.

Written by Priscilla Hwang, based on an interview by Elyn Jones


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