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Frozen Peril: When Snowstorms Send Patients to the ED

SEATTLE – Two days after a heavy snowfall, emergency departments need to get ready for an onslaught of cardiovascular disease patients.

Or so says new research on the timing of emergency department visits after winter storms of the type that deluged the Northeastern United States and other areas recently.

A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology points out that hospital admissions for cardiovascular diseases actually drop on days with major snowfalls compared to days with no snowfall, but then leap up by 23% two days later.

“With global climate change, major snowstorms may become more frequent and severe,” says lead author Jennifer Bobb, PhD, of the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, who worked on the study as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biostatistics at Harvard Chan School. “Understanding trends in hospitalizations related to snowfall will help us develop ways to protect public health during harsh winter conditions.”

For the study, researchers analyzed data for 433,037 adults hospitalized at the four largest hospitals in Boston – Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Medical Center, and Massachusetts General Hospital – from November through April in the years 2010 to 2015. Their focus was admissions for cardiovascular diseases, cold-weather related conditions such as frostbite, and falls and injuries.

Results indicate that cold-weather-related disease admissions increased by 3.7% on days when greater than 10 inches of snow fell, compared with days when no snow fell. Cardiovascular disease admissions were higher on days of moderate snow – 5 to 10 inches – instead of high snowfall, however.

The study found that admissions for falls increased 18% on average during the six days following a moderate snowfall, compared with days having no snowfall.

The researchers posit that health consequences are delayed because those who are most susceptible to cardiovascular events and falls stay indoors during heavy snowfalls and avoid potential hazards, at least temporarily.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study in which the time course of hospitalizations during and immediately after snowfall days has been examined,” study authors write. “These findings can be translated into interventions that prevent hospitalizations and protect public health during harsh winter conditions.”