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A Few Simple Questions Could Help Doctors Identify Alcohol-Related Problems

UT Health Science Center

A new study released by the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio found primary care clinicians may be missing three-fourths of the alcohol problems in their patients. 

The study analyzed data from 1,600 patients in 40 primary care practices throughout the central part of the country. Study co-author Dr. Barbara Turner at the UT Health Science Center said the study looked at whether the doctors’ intuition was accurate at identifying patients with hazardous or harmful levels of drinking. The results were that doctors intuitively found an alcohol problem only once in every 10 patients.

"The good from the study was that doctors, when they did suspect an alcohol problem, the person had one. So there are very few false positives, but there are lots and lots of false negatives," she said.

Turner says it’s not usually practical for doctors to ask questions to learn whether or not their patients are overdoing the alcohol.  She said alcohol screening questions are not routine, and they should be across the board.

"Usually the content of the visit is addressing your concerns and refilling medications and moving on. And you don't often look under the hood to see if there are risks that a patient has that need to be addressed," Turner said "Really, alcohol is still a huge issue for society, with something on the order of 80,000 deaths a year. It is the third leading cause of death related to lifestyle."

Add to those problems the incidence of injury, motor vehicle deaths, and DWI arrests, and Turner said it’s easy to see the alcohol problems is huge.

She recommends a series of a few, short questions be added to the clinic’s intake procedures, such as: How much do you drink and how often,’ not just on the patient’s first visit, but on a regular basis.

Eileen Pace is a veteran radio and print journalist with a long history of investigative and feature reporting in San Antonio and Houston, earning more than 50 awards for investigative reporting, documentaries, long-form series, features, sports stories, outstanding anchoring and best use of sound.