Screening and Intervening for Patients with Substance Use Disorders


Am Fam Physician. 2003 Apr 1;67(7):1443-1444.

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As Mersy1 points out in his article in this issue of American Family Physician, substance use problems are common and serious. They are also hidden.

Most patients' problems with hazardous drinking or substance use go unrecognized in most practices.2 Some disorders can be identified by the symptoms and signs described in the article, especially if they occur in combination. Why should physicians be concerned? Because even when there are several indications that substance use may be playing a role in the patient's problems, we tend to miss the diagnosis.

Brief interventions for problem drinking work.3 Fleming and colleagues in Wisconsin4 replicated a study done in the United Kingdom.5 In both studies, patients in primary care practices were screened. If they were drinking more than safe limits (more than two drinks per day, on average), appointments were made for two 10- to 15-minute intervention visits with a family physician, plus two telephone contacts by an office nurse. One year later, approximately 40 percent of the patients in the intervention groups had moderated their drinking to safe levels, compared with 20 percent in the control groups. In the Wisconsin trial, the differences between intervention and control groups were still present four years later. Outcomes such as length of hospital stays were significantly reduced in the intervention group. For every $1 spent on brief interventions, $4.30 was saved.6

How should patients with more serious alcohol problems be managed? Here, too, the evidence shows that treatments work.7 In Miller and Wilbourne's article,7 brief interventions by primary care clinicians top the list of effective treatments. Many other treatments—social skills training, community reinforcement, behavior contracting, behavior marital therapy, case management—also have solidly documented effectiveness.

How should we screen? Mersy1 is correct: Pick a screening test that works in your practice and use it. Written or oral tests are more sensitive than laboratory tests; carbohydrate-deficient transferrin does not become abnormal until the patient is drinking more than four drinks per day every day—considerably above the threshold of hazardous drinking. Furthermore, this test is available only through certain reference laboratories. The CAGE questions and the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test are well tested and effective.8 A single question also is effective: “When was the last time you had more than X drinks in one day?” where X = 4 for women and 5 for men.9 A positive screen would be within the preceding three months. Pick a screening approach, use it routinely, and develop a charting system so you do not have to screen patients more than once unless their situation changes.

What about drug abuse? Unfortunately, there are few validated screening instruments and few studies of brief interventions for substance use disorders other than alcohol. The CAGE questionnaire expanded to include drugs is one effective screening approach.10 Until we know more about which brief interventions are effective in patients with drug use problems, extrapolating findings from studies of brief interventions with problem drinkers is reasonable.

What should the content of a “brief intervention” be? Several approaches are effective, including a straightforward physicians' guide (available online atwww.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/physicn.htm), patient handout (www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/handout.htm), and more involved, yet still readily learned motivational-enhancement techniques.11 Problem drinking meets all the criteria for conditions that family physicians should screen for and address, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force agrees.12 Despite this, we have not incorporated alcohol screening to the extent that is recommended.2 Family physicians can be effective coaches in helping patients change their behaviors. Taking up that call will require that we change our own.

Daniel C. Vinson, M.D., M.S.P.H., is a professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, Columbia. He received his medical degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, where he also completed his residency.

Address correspondence to Daniel C. Vinson, M.D., M.S.P.H., Department of Family and Community Medicine, M231 Health Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, MO 65212 (e-mail:vinsond@health.missouri.edu). Reprints are not available from the author.


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1. Mersy DJ. Recognition of alcohol and substance abuse. Am Fam Physician. 2002;67:1529–36....

2. Spandorfer JM, Israel Y, Turner BJ. Primary care physicians' views on screening and management of alcohol abuse: inconsistencies with national guidelines. J Fam Pract. 1999;48:899–902.

3. Moyer A, Finney JW, Swearingen CE, Vergun P. Brief interventions for alcohol problems: a meta-analytic review of controlled investigations in treatment-seeking and non–treatment-seeking populations. Addiction. 2002;97:279–92.

4. Fleming MF, Barry KL, Manwell LB, Johnson K, London R. Brief physician advice for problem alcohol drinkers. JAMA. 1997;277:1039–45.

5. Wallace P, Cutler S, Haines A. Randomised controlled trial of general practitioner intervention in patients with excessive alcohol consumption. BMJ. 1988;297:663–8.

6. Fleming MF, Mundt MP, French MT, Manwell LB, Stauffacher EA, Barry KL. Brief physician advice for problem drinkers: long-term efficacy and benefit-cost analysis. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2002;26:36–43.

7. Miller WR, Wilbourne PL. Mesa grande: a methodological analysis of clinical trials of treatments for alcohol use disorders. Addiction. 2002;97:265–77.

8. Bradley KA, Bush KR, McDonell MB, Malone T, Fihn SD. Screening for problem drinking: comparison of CAGE and AUDIT. Ambulatory Care Quality Improvement Project (ACQUIP). Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. J Gen Intern Med. 1998;13:379–88.

9. Williams R, Vinson DC. Validation of a single screening question for problem drinking. J Fam Pract. 2001;50:307–12.

10. Brown RL, Leonard T, Saunders LA, Papasouliotis O. The prevalence and detection of substance use disorders among inpatients ages 18 to 49: an opportunity for prevention. Prev Med. 1998;27:101–10.

11. Rollnick S, Mason P, Butler C. Health behavior change: a guide for practitioners. Edinburgh, N.Y.: Churchill Livingstone, 1999.

12. Screening for problem drinking. In: Guide to clinical preventive services: report of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. 2d ed. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1996:567–82.



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