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Trauma Doctors Bring Attention to Crash Victims' Drinking

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"Persons who have recently been hospitalized for an alcohol-related MVC may be open to changing their drinking behavior because they are in a state of crisis," explains Sommers. "During times of crisis, people are faced with the choice of developing new coping mechanisms which may either be adaptive or maladaptive. Prompt intervention by a health professional can not only prevent serious long-term disability, but can also motivate patients to move to a higher level of functioning."

Unfortunately, most trauma care professionals are jaded, says Sommers, and do not intervene to change drinking patterns of patients because they "consider such interventions futile," having treated patients who continue to drink and drive despite repeated alcohol-related accidents.

"The results of this study," continues Sommers, "indicate that a large proportion, more than 60%, of non-alcohol-dependent patients injured in vehicular crashes, do indeed realize that their injury partially or totally was due to the use of alcohol. These patients may be willing, and perhaps even eager, to change their drinking patterns to remain injury-free in the future."

Michael Fleming, MD, a professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, warns that "interventional studies to determine whether trauma specialists can help patients change this type of behavior have, in the past, not been too successful."

Another physician, Susan Nedza, MD, chairwoman of the blood-alcohol reporting task force of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), characterizes the study as "excellent."

"It drives home a point that ACEP endorses," Nedza tells WebMD. "We have been trying to make ER physicians more aware of the opportunities to intervene with binge drinkers. One of the things we want physicians to tell binge drinkers is they don't have to be legally intoxicated to be at risk for a serious auto accident. Even low levels of alcohol intake can impact your cognitive and motor skills."

"The Sommers study developed some surprising data," she continues. "In other studies, the majority of binge drinkers have denied that their drinking to excess is a problem. It is remarkable that Sommers and her group got as many as 60% to admit the connection between their injuries and their alcohol use. This high rate of success may be related to the fact that these persons were approached during that teachable moment."

"Their study shows that such a moment is the perfect opportunity -- if physicians would recognize and seize it -- to intervene and say, 'Hey, this is a problem for you,'" continues Nedza, who practices at Christ Hospital Medical Center in Chicago. "Just a couple-minute investment of time could help a person gain the self-recognition necessary to make the decision to get treatment."

The Sommers study is a preliminary investigation, part of a larger-scale, experimental trial funded by the CDC, that is looking at ways to decrease repeated alcohol-related injuries.

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