Many Doctors Don't Spot Drinking Problems

By Gabrielle Wuhl 08/02/12

Unless they're actually drunk during a check-up, nearly half of problem drinkers go undetected, a study shows.

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Unless patients show up to their appointments intoxicated, alcohol problems often go overlooked by clinical staff, according to an overview of 39 studies from the UK's Leicester University. Published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the findings suggest that in addition to failing to spot problem drinkers, doctors also misdiagnosed a reported 5% of "normal drinkers" by labeling them as problem ones. Out of 20,000 patients assessed, general practitioners identified 40% of problem drinkers, hospital doctors spotted 50%, and mental health specialists recognized 55%. Alarmingly, correct diagnosis rates didn't improve even when some patients had self-reported alcohol problems, suggesting that many doctors are failing to ask appropriate questions about patients' drinking habits. To their credit, doctors did note when their patients were drunk during their check-ups—but only 90% of the time. Dr. Alex J Mitchell, the researcher who led the study, said: "There needs to be a greater awareness of the importance of carefully assessing alcohol problems for non-intoxicated patients. Patient responses to questioning about drinking habits should not be assumed to be misleading but questioning must be handled sensitively".

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