Poison Control Centers Important to Our Communities

Aug 11, 2010 at 12:04 pm by steve

Every eight seconds, someone calls a poison center. These centers, located throughout the United States, are saving lives everyday and saving money by eliminating unnecessary health care expenses. In Alabama alone last year, the Regional Poison Control Center saved $16 million in uninsured costs, private insurance, and Medicaid just by answering the telephone.


The Regional Poison Control Center, located in Birmingham at Children's Hospital, is part of a national network of centers that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. By calling 1-800-222-1222, you will be connected to the center in your area. The center in Birmingham, established in 1958, is the 14th oldest center in the U.S., says clinical toxicologist and center supervisor Ann Slattery, RN, RPh, DrPH, CSPI, DABAT.


"Children's Hospital supports us, and we handle patients of all ages. We're not here just for pediatric patients. Adults make mistakes, too," Slattery says. In 2009, the center received 45,997 calls, and 25,452 were exposures to a poison. "More than 57 percent of those calls involved a child under 6 years of age," Slattery adds. "That number is higher than the national average of 51.9 percent, and I think it's because most pediatricians in this area are familiar with Children's Hospital and know we are there. That makes parents here more aware as well."


The top 10 poisons, listed by call volume, in Alabama last year were:

  1. Analgesics
  2. Cosmetics
  3. Cleaning substances
  4. Sedatives
  5. Foreign bodies (e.g., batteries, magnets)
  6. Cough and cold medicines
  7. Topicals
  8. Insecticides
  9. Antihistamines
  10. Cardiovascular medicines


The Regional Poison Control Center phones are answered by RNs and pharmacists who are also toxicologists, each of whom are required to take an accreditation exam each year. The center's staff also does surveys for the Department of Public Health and sends the information to the National Poison Data System, which contains information on more than 18 million poison exposures reported to U.S. poison centers.


"We have made a significant economic impact on public health by triaging patients over the phone and keeping exposures at home instead of them going to a health care facility," says Erica Liebelt, MD, medical director for the Regional Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital. "We also provide information on the toxicity of exposures."


Because these professionals are available around the clock, only seven of the more than 25,000 exposures called into the regional center last year resulted in fatalities, says Slattery. "None of those deaths were pediatric patients even though the majority of our exposures occur in children," she says. "The majority of fatalities are in the 25-45 age range. Adults typically are exposed to more deadly poisons and many are suicide attempts."


Slattery is proud of the fact that the Poison Control Center is able to keep 86 percent of the pediatric exposures at home by giving the parents or caregivers the information they need to care for the child. "For every child we refer to an emergency department, we keep 8.5 at home," Slattery says. "Without this center, all those people who we leave at home would be flooding ERs with unnecessary visits."


When a patient is "left at home," the center's staff does follow-up calls to check symptoms and to see how the patient is doing. "For the 25,000 plus calls we received last year, we did 44,000 follow-up calls. So not only do we receive calls, we follow each one up," Slattery says.


Every 90 seconds, a health care professional consults a poison control center, and Slattery says 20 percent of their calls last year came from physicians and their staffs. "Many call to verify information on a medicine box, for example. We also can tell a pharmacist how a particular drug has changed and how it will affect the body," she says.


Birmingham physician Max Hale, MD of Birmingham Pediatrics says the Regional Poison Control Center is valuable to his patients and staff. "We occasionally call them for clarification on exposures or ingestions," Hale says. "We usually think of the center as a place to call if someone takes the wrong medicine or too much medicine, but they can answer questions about ingestion of all sorts of products including household products and cleaners, batteries and houseplants."


Because of the educational and informational service they provide, poison centers have become an integral part of our communities, and the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) has begun a new awareness campaign at the request of the individual centers. "These centers have been around since 1953, but there are still people who do not know we are here," Slattery says.


Getting the word out will save lives and money. According to the AAPCC, poison centers are at least three times more cost effective than child safety seats, smoke detectors, and bicycle helmets. Poison control centers are as cost effective as childhood immunizations. Every dollar spent on a poison center saves about $7 in unnecessary health care expenses by eliminating physician office visits, hospital admissions, lab testing and ambulance runs.


"It is wonderful that we have this service available to the public here in the U.S.," Slattery says, "because many countries do not."

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