One Question Can Help Docs Spot Risky Drinking

By Victoria Kim 05/14/13

A medical panel urges physicians to screen all adult patients with one simple question.

One question can catch a habit. Photo via

A potentially dangerous drinking habit can be detected by doctors with just one simple question, according to the US Preventative Services Task Force. The independent panel of medical experts presented new evidence today that a quick screening during a check-up can detect problem drinking, which should then be addressed with a "brief intervention" by the doctor. According to Dr. Michael LeFevre, professor of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, "There's evidence that doctors can catch risky drinking by asking just one question: How many times in the past year have you had five or more drinks in a day (if you're a man), or four or more drinks (if you're a woman or older than 65)?" Even a single 5-15 minute counseling session with a doctor can help reduce a patient's drinking if it's in the "risky" stage, according to the panel. "Brief interventions are effective for people who are at the risky drinking stage," says LeFevre. "However, people with more serious drinking problems will likely need more help, or a referral to a specialist program." An estimated 21% of US adults have admitted to problem drinking, which is responsible for over 85,000 deaths in the US annually. The task force's updated guidelines clarify that doctors should be looking for the full range of what they call alcohol "misuse," which ranges from "risky" drinking, to alcohol abuse and dependence. A study earlier this year found that doctors routinely fail to diagnose over 70% of problem drinkers among their patients, when they rely on suspicion alone.

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