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Official: apparent decrease in student ambulance calls misleading

BY DORA GROTE | SEPTEMBER 15, 2011 7:20 AM

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Officials said they're unable to find trends in alcohol-related ambulance calls because of a decision to use a new software for tracking those calls.

Therefore, Johnson County Public Health Director Doug Beardsley said, what appears to be a decrease in the number of student calls is misleading.

"We cannot make an apples to apples comparison between years because of the change in software," he said at a Partnership for Alcohol Safety meeting Wednesday. "But looking at other trends, nothing jumps out that says turn this ship around."

Beardsley said 931 student alcohol-related calls were placed in 2009 and 349 were placed in 2010. He said the numbers show a decrease in calls, but in reality, no relevant information can be drawn from them to show a change in the behavior of University of Iowa students.

The software switch changed the protocol for what calls are considered alcohol-related, he said.

In previous years, a patient who called the ambulance after an intoxicated person harmed them would be considered an alcohol-related call, Beardsley said. Beginning in 2010, the patient needed to consume alcohol for the call to be considered "alcohol-related."

The data software change has made it difficult for UI officials to track student trends, in light of their Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan initiatives.

UI Vice President for Student Life Tom Rocklin said UI officials will use different methods to detect changes in students' alcohol behavior because of the change in software. He said the emergency-treatment admission numbers will be used to indicate the alcohol-related harm students place on themselves and each other.

Michael Takacs, as UI clinical associate professor of emergency medicine, said in the year prior to the 21-ordinance, more than 16 of every 100 visits of 18- to 20-year-olds to the ER were alcohol-related. In the year following, this number fell to just more than 12.

"The total number of visits [denominator] is nearly identical, meaning the total number of alcohol related emergencies dropped 24 percent," Takacs said. "Another very important thing we found is the alcohol-related visits involving violence decreased 49.8 percent."

Rocklin said officials will also be using the police records of calls made to the ambulance office from on campus, normally from the residence halls.

Despite the software change, Beardsley said, the age of most frequent ambulance calls could still be tracked. In 2009, the age was 19, and in 2010 the number rose to 20.

"This is not earth-shattering information," he said. "If the data don't change month by month, that's OK. Call me back in two decades, and we will see if there is a change."

Beardsley said 2010 will now be used as a base year for tracking change in alcohol behavior.

"It's frustrating when you're trying to track a change in a community, and the methodology is changed," he said.


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