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Health professionals rarely discuss alcohol issues with patients

Wednesday January 8, 2014
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Only one in six adults — and only one in four binge drinkers — say a health professional ever has discussed alcohol use with them, even though drinking too much is harmful to health, according to a CDC report.

Even among adults who binge drink 10 or more times a month, only one in three reports having had a health professional speak with them about alcohol use, according to the report in the January issue of Vital Signs. Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men within two to three hours.

Speaking with patients about their alcohol use is an important first step in screening and counseling, which has been proven effective in helping people who drink too much to drink less, according to a CDC news release.

A drink is defined as five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor. At least 38 million adults in the U.S. drink too much, according to the CDC, and most are not alcoholics. Drinking too much causes about 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, and was responsible for about $224 billion in economic costs in 2006. It can also lead to many health and social problems, including heart disease, breast cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, motor-vehicle crashes and violence.

Alcohol screening and brief counseling can reduce the amount of alcohol consumed on an occasion by 25% among those who drink too much, according to the CDC. It is recommended for all adults, including pregnant women. As with blood pressure, cholesterol and breast cancer screening, and flu vaccination, it has been shown to improve health and save money. Through the Affordable Care Act, alcohol screening and brief counseling can be covered by most health insurance plans without copay.

“Drinking too much alcohol has many more health risks than most people realize,” CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, said in the news release. “Alcohol screening and brief counseling can help people set realistic goals for themselves and achieve those goals. Healthcare workers can provide this service to more patients and involve communities to help people avoid dangerous levels of drinking.”

Health professionals who conduct alcohol screening and brief counseling use a set of questions to screen all patients to determine how much they drink and assess problems associated with drinking. This practice allows them to counsel those who drink too much about the health dangers, and to refer those who need specialized treatment for alcohol dependence.

The CDC used 2011 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data to analyze self-reports of ever being “talked with by a health provider” about alcohol use among U.S. adults ages 18 and older from 44 states and Washington, D.C.

In no state or district did more than one in four adults report that a health professional spoke with them about their drinking, and only 17% of pregnant women reported such counseling. Drinking during pregnancy can seriously harm the developing fetus, the CDC stated.

Report: www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm63e0107a1.htm

Information about the CDC’s efforts relating to alcohol and public health, visit www.cdc.gov/alcohol/

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has developed materials designed to help health care professionals conduct fast, evidence-based alcohol screening and brief interventions for adults 18 and older: www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/clinical-guides-and-manuals/helping-patients-who-drink-too-much-clinicians-guide


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