Agency Wants to Help Doctors Identify Heavy Drinkers and Get Them Treatment Promptly

(Press Association Via AP)
By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

When it comes to treatment, the experts think alcoholism needs to catch up to depression.

Three decades ago, long before the dawn of the Prozac Era, depression was a disease rarely treated in its mild form, reluctantly treated with drugs and usually treated by experts only. Today, signs of depression are actively sought, drugs are prescribed early and often, and most cases are handled by non-psychiatrists.

With alcohol abuse, however, most physicians don't go looking for trouble and don't recognize it until it's breathing in their face. Over-drinking patients often don't think of looking for help even if they know they are heading in the wrong direction. And society as a rule looks at alcohol treatment as a last-chance, 90-degree corner taken only at high speed.

All this will change if American physicians adopt the new guidelines for "Helping Patients Who Drink Too Much" promulgated by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The idea is to simplify the screening for excessive alcohol use in general medical practice and to convince clinicians and patients that early intervention for drinking that hasn't yet wreaked havoc is both possible and useful.

"We're trying to increase the accessibility and attractiveness of treatment to a much broader spectrum of people," said Mark L. Willenbring, a psychiatrist who directs the Division of Treatment and Recovery Research at NIAAA.

Those especially targeted in the guidelines are heavy drinkers who are not yet physically dependent on alcohol but are at risk for becoming so.

"We know that that group responds very, very well to what we call facilitated self-change and brief motivational counseling. We could make that very widely available without much cost," Willenbring said.

A big part of the new strategy is to make primary care physicians -- people without specialized training in addiction medicine -- think about alcohol abuse the way many now think about depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Which is to say, they need to think of it as something common, diagnosable and within their capacity to treat. The guidelines make this easy: The screening tool for alcohol problems consists of a single question. For men: How many days in the past year have you had five or more drinks? For women: How many days in the past year have you had four or more drinks?

"Most doctors don't know how to make the diagnosis and don't really try to do anything about it until it is so easy to diagnose that all you have to do is glance at the patient," said Charles P. O'Brien, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who has been treating alcoholics for 38 years.

"It used to be said that you can't treat somebody until they are down and out. But when they are down and out, they are really hard to treat," O'Brien said.

Willenbring concurs.

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