Amnesty policies may curb alcohol emergencies at universities

(Reuters Health) – Amnesty policies may encourage college students to call for help with alcohol-related issues before they or their intoxicated peers become seriously ill, a U.S. study suggests.

After a medical amnesty policy was implemented at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, the average daily number of alcohol-related calls to the school’s emergency medical services (EMS) agency went up, but calls requiring advanced life support services fell by nearly 60 percent.

Georgetown implemented its medical amnesty policy in August 2014, protecting students seeking medical treatment for alcohol-related emergencies from disciplinary process.

Many universities have adopted such policies to encourage students and bystanders to seek emergency care by reducing sanctions, as dangerous alcohol-related situations are often underreported due to fears over disciplinary actions, researchers write in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The results at Georgetown suggest the policy empowers intoxicated students, or bystanders, to call for medical assistance before a crisis develops, they add.

“We were surprised about the decrease in patients who required or met criteria for advanced level life support care for alcohol related emergencies after implementation of the amnesty policy,” Brian Monahan, the study’s lead author and a medical student at Georgetown, told Reuters Health by email.

Monahan and colleagues reviewed records of the university’s EMS agency for three years before and three years after the amnesty policy went into effect in August 2014.

The average daily number of calls for intoxication in the fall semesters rose from 0.84 before the amnesty policy to 0.93 afterward. In the spring, however, these calls fell only slightly, to 0.41 calls per day from 0.42 per day.

The proportion of emergencies requiring advanced life support services dropped from 9 percent to 3.7 percent after the amnesty policy was put in place.

In addition, calls for alcohol-related emergencies were made earlier in the evening, suggesting students were seeking help when the level of intoxication was less severe.

The amnesty program was also used by administrators “to identify at-risk students and engage them in behavioral therapy, which has been shown to decrease risky drinking behaviors,” the authors write.

“Since this was a retrospective study, we cannot say anything about causality, however, we believe the data support that individuals at Georgetown were utilizing the amnesty policy to call emergency medical services earlier and for less severe intoxication,” Monahan said.

Other limitations of the study include a lack of control for potential changes in alcohol consumption trends in the population, the authors note. Also, they only looked at calls where intoxication was the chief complaint, whereas other emergencies where alcohol may have been a factor were not included. Finally, they point out, students at the university have a variety of health insurance plans and have the option of calling other emergency medical services.

In a separate recent study involving 1,200 first-year students at Palo Alto University in California, researchers found that implementing a medical amnesty policy did not increase drinking, overall alcohol consumption, or medical consequences.(

In that August report, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Amie Hass and colleagues wrote that their findings “suggest that policies designed to remove barriers to college students seeking help for alcohol overdose do not increase overall alcohol involvement or the incidence of alcohol-related problems resulting from heavy consumption.”

SOURCE: Journal of Adolescent Health, online October 4, 2018.

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