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Are You a Risky Drinker?

Alcoholism Only Small Part of U.S. Alcohol Abuse, Experts Say

Better Treatment continued...

The first step, the AMA panel agrees, is for doctors to routinely screen patients for alcohol risk.

"The best screening test to date is by asking validated questions," Saitz says. "This is the shortest: When was the last time you had four or more drinks, if a woman, or five or more drinks, if a man? A positive result is any time in the last year. The test does not mean alcoholism. It is an indicator of risky alcohol use."

Whom should doctors ask? Everyone who steps into their office. That's because alcohol use is linked to a number of medical conditions. It does not cause all of them, but it does increase risk.

"Once we identify unhealthy alcohol use, we can do something about it," Saitz says. "And I'm talking about the early stages. Ten or 15 minutes talking with a doctor can significantly decrease alcohol consumption a year and even four years later."

Here's what doctors are supposed to do, according to the NIAAA's 2005 guidelines:

  • Ask about alcohol use.
  • Assess for alcohol-use disorders.
  • Advise and assist the patient. Set and discuss goals for the patient.
  • Follow up with continued support. Patients with alcohol-use disorders may need referral to a specialist.

"Risky alcohol use is more common than alcohol dependence and is responsible for more than half of the health consequences due to alcohol," Saitz says. "It can be identified quickly. And brief counseling can have an impact. People with alcohol dependence can start with brief counseling and then go on to what they need."

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