Study: High heat increases ER visits, deaths in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When heat and humidity are extreme in Rhode Island, more people go to emergency rooms or die, according to a study published Wednesday.

Researchers at Brown University and the Rhode Island Department of Health, along with colleagues in Maine and New Hampshire, studied data from the three states between 1999 and 2012. Hospital discharge and vital statistics were mined for the data.

On days when the “heat index” hit 95 degrees, visits to emergency departments increased by 7.5 percent, and deaths from any type of cause increased 5.1 percent. The “heat index” is a combined measure of heat and humidity.

In a statement, the health department cited national statistics saying more people die during extended heat waves than during any other type of weather event.

Last August, one week saw 23 people affected by the heat rushed to Lifespan’s emergency departments, with twenty of them diagnosed with dehydration and three treated with heat exhaustion.

Study authors are now publishing the research they’d previously discussed with National Weather Service in the region. The research had prompted the NWS to change its policy back in December for when it will issue a heat advisory.

The average Rhode Island summer usually has ten days where the heat index hits 90 degrees. That’s expected to increase in the coming decades.

“As we prepare for and respond to climate change statewide, it is essential that we continue to support this kind of research that allows us to identify burdens and trends and to take specific steps to ensure that everyone in Rhode Island has an equal opportunity to be healthy and safe,” said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the state’s director of health.

The health department says it’s going to increase publicity to help Rhode Islanders take precautions against extreme heat.

Among the heat-fighting tips they reiterated:

  • Stay out of the direct sun
  • Seek shaded or air conditioned areas such as libraries or malls
  • Drink plenty of fluids (avoid alcohol and caffeine)
  • Schedule outdoor events early in the morning when it’s cooler
  • Pace yourself when you exercise
  • Wear light-colored, light-weight clothing.
  • Use hats with brims and sunscreen (SPF 30 or more) for more protection
  • Check on friends, family, and neighbors