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Inside Criminal Justice

The Public Health Cost of Gun Violence

November 4, 2013 06:45:30 am

By Cara Tabachnick

Photo by the Knowles Gallery, via Flickr

It costs over $2 billion a year in hospital charges to treat victims of firearms-related injuries.

That was the major finding of a study released today at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA). 

The high figure underlines the need to treat gun violence in the U.S. as a public health issue as well as a law enforcement challenge, according to physicians and advocacy groups contacted by The Crime Report. 

“We are talking about huge numbers of people being hurt every year,” said Dr. Eric Fleegler, an emergency pediatric physician at Boston Children’s Hospital who has published extensive research on firearm injuries and mortality.     

“These are not just problems for an individual but also an incredible burden on our healthcare system."

Others asked by The Crime Report for comment on the study, said concern about rising health care costs, combined with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, has created an opportunity for transforming the nation’s approach to gun violence.

According to the APHA study, one out of every three patients hospitalized for gun injuries was uninsured.

Between 2000 and 2010, 275,939 individuals were victims of gunfire in the U.S., and received 1.7 million days of hospital charges which only included costs after the patient was admitted, according to the APHA study. The study does not cover emergency room costs, which is different than hospital charges.

The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Veerajalandar Allareddy of Case Western University in Ohio, estimates that the total cost over the decade amounted to more than $18.9 billion.

The average cost of medical treatment for each hospitalization was $75,884.

Approximately 31,000 people die each year from gun-related injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“This study has shown (that) despite a lot of policy and programs in past decade nothing has changed for the group most likely to be injured by firearms,” said Dr. Allareddy, who is also a physician at a Level 1 Trauma Center, which provides the highest level of surgical care to trauma patients.

“Young, uninsured, African-American males are still victims of firearms regardless of approach, and this is a problem we don’t know how to solve.”

The figures show why “gun violence needs to be approached from a public health standpoint, ” said Robyn Thomas, Executive Director of the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.  

Recently, the San Francisco advocacy group and the National Physicians Alliance released  “Gun Safety & Public Health,” a set of guidelines and policy recommendations describing the public health approach to reducing gun violence.  

Recommendations included training doctors in gun safety issues as part of their professional training, so they can engage in discussions with patients about precautions such as properly storing firearms away from the reach of children.

The report noted that such training falls within the tradition of involving the medical community in public health crises as champions of injury prevention policies.

The Center will convene a meeting of experts this month in San Francisco, who have been involved in previous public health campaigns on issues such as motor vehicle safety, smoking and climate change in the hopes of  using these earlier campaigns as a  model the medical community can use for preventing gun violence.

Thomas called on the American Medical Association to take a more high profile role on the issue of gun violence.

“If doctors truly could understand the impact of the problem to the health care system, it could change everything,” she said.

Some other research findings from the APHA study: 

  • 89 percent of firearm injury patients treated in hospitals were male---and more than half (48 percent) were African American.
  • Over 60 percent of the injuries were caused by handgun “assault;”
  • 22 percent of the injuries were listed as accidental;
  • 8 percent were self-inflicted;
  • Almost 40 percent of patients were aged 20-30.

Adding more context to the issue of rising costs, a recent report by The Urban Institute, a non-partisan think tank, found that over 80 percent of gun violence costs are paid for  by taxpayers through Medicaid or other public-funded programs that subsidize hospital care.

Benjamin Hayes, former chief of the law enforcement branch at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ National Tracing Center, said it’s important for the law enforcement community to see health professionals as allies in curbing gun violence.

“Most people don’t associate medical costs with gunshots,” said Hayes.

Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers. Follow her at @caraoncrime

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