Rural Ontario hit harder by alcohol during pandemic, study finds

·2 min read
Visits to Ontario emergency rooms during the pandemic dropped overall, and alcohol-related visits now make up a bigger chunk of the total, a new study finds. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn - image credit)
Visits to Ontario emergency rooms during the pandemic dropped overall, and alcohol-related visits now make up a bigger chunk of the total, a new study finds. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn - image credit)

Rural Ontarians engage in more dangerous drinking than urbanites and that gap grew during the pandemic, a new study finds.

According to the study led by researchers at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, fewer people in Ontario cities ended up in the emergency room because of alcohol during the first six months of the pandemic, while the number held steady in rural areas.

At the same time, total emergency room visits plummeted meaning alcohol accounted for a larger slice of the total and a growing share of Ontario's health-care burden.

"The rurality piece is really interesting," said Dr. Daniel Myran, the study's lead author.

"Not only did we see very stark differences in the urban-rural experience during COVID, but that was a problem that existed before the pandemic began."

WATCH: Dr. Daniel Myran on the gap between urban and rural:

More young women to ER for alcohol

In earlier work, Myran found the gap between urban and rural areas in Ontario has been around for years. It only widened during the pandemic.

"If you go all the way back to 2003 and you start tracking how these visits are changing over time, you see that emergency visits related to alcohol in rural Ontario are increasing much faster than they are in urban Ontario," said Myran, who is also a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa.

Most of that increase, said Myran, is happening among young women.

"You see a growth in young rural women in a way that you don't see in older adults and you don't see in urban men," he said.

By using emergency room visits, the study captured a variety of harms caused by alcohol, including intoxication, withdrawal and liver disease.

The research comes as some groups report drinking more during the pandemic for a variety of reasons.

Myran also said the study shows how different groups experienced the pandemic as alcohol visits reveals disparities. He said the research doesn't conclude what might cause those disparities, though.

Ben Andrews/CBC News
Ben Andrews/CBC News

Fewer rural family doctors

Robert Cushman, chief medical officer of health for Renfrew County, said the increase in rural visits to the emergency room could be due to a lack of family doctors in those communities, which moves more serious cases to ERs by default.

"With our virtual treatment assessment centre in Renfrew County, we were able to mitigate some of those problems. But clearly, other areas in rural Ontario did not have that option available to them," said Cushman.

At the same time, the decrease in hospital visits could be due to a fear of COVID-19, he added.

The study also found clear differences based on age and income with those who are older and living on a lower income experiencing a smaller decline in alcohol-related emergency room visits.

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