Physician: Docs often fail to address patients’ alcohol use

Physicians should screen patients for heavy alcohol use, says one doctor.

While the abuse of opioids is in the headlines, alcohol kills more people than all illicit drugs combined. Yet most doctors fail to address their patients’ drinking problems, says one physician.

“As the fourth-leading cause of preventable death, killing an estimated 88,000 Americans a year, alcohol is the most common problem that I encounter as a primary care doctor, and the one that I feel least able to manage,” writes Elisabeth Poorman, M.D., in a commentary on Commonhealth.

She recalled a middle-aged patient who told her he wasn’t an alcoholic, but drank six to seven beers every night, mixed in with a few shots here and there. However, doctors in the medical community do not take unhealthy alcohol use as seriously as they should, she says. While there is treatment that works, patients don't get help for addiction.

When it comes to alcohol, the medical community is "under-trained, under-supported and underfunded," says Poorman, a primary care physician in Massachusetts. She suggests physicians screen all their patients to detect early stages of alcohol use disorders. Her first question is to ask patients if they have had four or more drinks in a single day in the last year to determine if they are drinking unhealthy levels. Brief counseling from a doctor can help people drink less often and less heavily, she says.

In a landmark report released last fall, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., called on doctors to screen for addictions, which he said are a bigger health problem than cancer.

Poorman’s commentary comes at the same time a new study finds that more older American women are drinking heavily. The study, published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, examined drinking among adults age 60 and older and found the prevalence of binge drinking among older women is increasing dramatically, an average of nearly 4% per year, far faster than it is among older men.