It’s a topic docs and patients don’t like to discuss: Heavy alcohol use

Doctor and patient

Patients don’t like bringing up the topic of alcohol use and neither do their doctors, although it’s a health problem for many people, according to a recent study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Approximately 30 percent of people in the United States drink alcohol at an unhealthy level--and that can have a profound impact on their health and the efficacy of certain medications, according to the study.

Even a brief conversation with their primary care doctor can have an impact on changing patients’ drinking habits. But those discussions aren’t likely to occur, in part because doctors don’t want their patients to feel judged, according to an announcement about the study.

However, technology can help: More than 50 percent of patients volunteered to discuss their heavy drinking habits with their doctors if they were prompted to do so by an interactive voice response (IVR) system before their scheduled appointment, according to this study of 1,500 patients at eight internal medicine and family medicine practices.

The outcome is precisely what researchers had hoped for, said Gail Rose, Ph.D., a behavioral health researcher at the University of Vermont and lead author of the study. That’s because the low-technology solution helped to overcome the stigma associated with unhealthy alcohol use and enabled doctors to assist their patients. The hope is that primary care practices will include this IVR-based screening in patients’ appointment reminders, she added.

What makes the difference is prompting patients right before their appointments so that it’s “fresh in their minds, and they’re told it’s relevant to their medical care,” said Rose.

- read the study
- here’s the announcement