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Warm temperatures put heat on ED

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Heat-related emergency department visits and deaths surge when the mercury rises above 23 degrees Celsius, according to a US study.

Researchers at Brown University and the Rhode Island Department of Health undertook a detailed statistical analysis of emergency department visits, deaths and weather data, and included possibly confounding factors, such as ozone, to assess the effect of rising temperatures on presentations at hospitals. The ED records included information about whether doctors thought a patient’s condition was related to heat or dehydration.

The study suggested that if the population were living with the sort of temperatures the world is expected to reach because of climate change, there will be an appreciable increase in emergency department visits and deaths.

Lead author Samantha Kingsley said the primary finding was that as temperatures increase, the number of emergency room visits and deaths increase. But, she said, people were going to the hospital for heat-related reasons at temperatures below what would typically be considered extreme.

The researchers found that while the rate of heat-related ED visits jumped 3.3 per cent on days when the temperature reached 23 degrees compared with those with a high of 18 degrees, they jumped almost 24 per cent when the mercury reached 29 degrees compared with days when the high was 23 degrees. Overall, temperature began to play an independent role in increasing ED visits when the mercury reached or exceeded around 23 degrees.

Senior author and Associate Professor Gregory Wellenius said that people should be aware that heat represents a significant public health threat that needed to be taken seriously, even when authorities did not issue heat warnings.

Interestingly, the researchers found that 18 to 64 year olds made the most heat-related emergency department visits, rather than infants and the elderly, who are considered to be the most vulnerable to heat-related health problems. The researchers were unsure about the reason, but speculated it may be because people in this age group were more likely to be outdoors working or playing sport, and may pay less heed to heat warnings.

Previous studies have linked higher temperatures to increased hospital visits and deaths, but in heat waves the elderly have been most at risk. Earlier this year a heat wave killed about 2000 people in India, many of whom were elderly.

The researchers warned that their finding that ED visits and deaths are greater on warmer days, even if temperatures are only in the 20s, suggests that distress from the heat may become even more common as temperatures rise as a result of global warming.

Kirsty Waterford