Drink too much booze on Saturday night and it doesn’t matter if you have a health insurance plan so comprehensive it even covers distance Reiki healing: The American medical establishment is going to leave you sweaty, trembling, and nauseous on Sunday morning. Oh, sure, you can hit up 7-Eleven for some Hangover Joe’s Recovery Shots . But it’s 2012, the age of bionic eyeballs and facelifts at the mall. While the imprimatur of the Warner Bros. licensing department lends Hangover Joe’s a certain medical authority, is this product really the best solution that 21st century medical technology can offer us?
Clearly Dr. Jason Burke doesn’t think so. A board-certified anesthesiologist with a medical degree from the University of North Carolina, Dr. Burke is, according to his website, the “first physician in the United States to formally dedicate his career to the treatment of hangovers.”
Earlier this month, he unveiled his new treatment clinic, a 45-foot-long tour bus emblazoned with soothing blue and white graphics and his business’s name, “Hangover Heaven.” Inside the bus, it looks like a cross between an ambulance and a conference room at Embassy Suites. IV drips hang from the ceiling, patients are swathed in blankets, but there are also spacious leather sofas with built-in beverage-holders and flat-screen TVs. EMTs administer relief to patients in the form of branded medical cocktails. The $90 Redemption package contains one bag of saline solution, vitamins, and an anti-nausea medication. The $150 Salvation package includes a double shot of saline solution, the vitamins, the anti-nausea medication and an anti-inflammatory as well.
In his day job as an anesthesiologist, Dr. Burke uses such regimens to treat post-surgery patients suffering from dehydration, nausea, and similar symptoms. Recognizing that they might prove useful in other contexts too, he experimented on himself after a night of revelry. The treatment worked, and soon he was wondering if he’d stumbled into a potential business as well as a cure. At first, he considered establishing a traditional office but ultimately decided the costs associated with that were prohibitive. “Being that this was a somewhat unique business idea, I didn’t want to be on the hook for a five-year lease if the thing tanked,” he says. So he decided to go mobile, purchasing a tour bus that already had most of the accommodations he needed. “This way, if it doesn’t work out, I can sell the bus.”
But if the risks of blazing new medical ground are high, so are the potential rewards. According to a study published in the November 2011 edition of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine (AJPM), excessive alcohol consumption resulted in economic losses of approximately $223 billion in 2006. Moreover, the study elaborated, $74.1 billion of those losses resulted from impaired workplace productivity. Another $4.2 billion in losses resulted from workplace absenteeism. With so much money at stake, you’d think there’d be more efforts to find effective treatments. And yet because of the other costs associated with excessive alcohol consumption—in the AJPM’s estimation, it leads to 79,000 premature deaths a year and generates approximately $45 billion a year in healthcare and criminal justice costs—many medical practitioners believe hangovers function as nature’s own aversion therapy, a useful deterrent and punishment that discourages subsequent alcohol consumption. In the opinion of some researchers, a 2004 New York Times article reported , even just studying the efficacy of hangover cures “raises ethical issues.”
And yet what would happen if this prohibitionist mindset were applied across the entire spectrum of medical treatment? Should liposuction and bypass surgery be off-limits to anyone who ever ate a donut? Should ultra-marathoners have access to Ibuprofen?
In Las Vegas, the prospect of eliminating hangovers—and the productivity declines that come with them—is particularly compelling. While $20 cocktails are a major part of the city’s lifeblood, the fuel that keeps roulette wheels spinning and wedding chapels open around the clock, they also exact an economic toll. A tourist who spends all day in his hotel room, popping Excedrin and dry-heaving to Dr. Phil, is a tourist who isn’t staring slack-jawed at Criss Angel’s illusions or piloting race cars at Richard Petty’s NASCAR fantasy camp . “If you’re only here for three days, and you’re hungover one day, that’s a third of your trip that just went poof,” Dr. Burke says. “This service is all about getting people back to enjoying their vacation.”
Then there are the legions of radiologists, sportswear retailers, and adult video producers who converge on the city each year for trade shows. For them, a day lost to hangover recovery could mean a squandered networking opportunity, a missed deal, career sabotage. “There was a group of seven that came on our first weekend,” Dr. Burke says. “They were here for an oil and gas conference, and they
just brought their whole sales team on the bus. We treated them all so they could make it back to their conference.”
The Hangover Heaven treatments take about 45 minutes and Dr. Burke says that so far about 95 percent of his patients report feeling significantly better afterward—a few recent customers felt so good, in fact, that they went straight from the bus to the thrill rides at the Stratosphere Tower.
Still, these cures have their limits. They can’t undo a DUI. They can’t erase a facial tattoo. And as the Hangover Heaven website disclaims, the service isn’t intended for emergencies or serious medical conditions resulting from alcohol or long-term alcohol abuse. In addition, a semi-exclusive door policy is in effect. “We don’t just fire IVs and medicines into anybody that shows up,” Dr. Burke says. “This is a real medical practice. We don’t treat intoxicated people. We take a medical history and a consent. If people have complicating medical conditions, like diabetes or high blood pressure, we don’t treat them.”
Hangover Heaven also doesn’t take insurance. That means it’s that relatively rare medical practice where consumers pay directly for the services they desire. And because profit margins are thin, Hangover Heaven won’t prosper unless the bulk of its customers find the service effective, safe, and a good value. To ensure that they do, it’s more consumer-oriented than many medical businesses, emphasizing convenience, transparent pricing, and a commitment to improving the customer’s experience. For example, because some potential customers are wary of IVs, Dr. Burke’s exploring the feasibility of offering oral treatments. In addition, he’s thinking about converting the bus’s engine.
“I’m going to try to get the bus to run on biodiesel so that it smells like bacon,” he says. No doubt some nay-sayers will question the heart-healthiness of this move, but to Las Vegas visitors looking for the most pleasant recovery process possible, such touches no doubt bear the unmistakable scent of progress.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.