Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: One question may help screen for unhealthy alcohol use

In Brief

One question may help screen for unhealthy alcohol use

In theory, primary care physicians are in the best position to identify patients at risk for developing alcohol abuse or dependence. Because of time constraints, however, they tend to underdiagnose unhealthy alcohol use.

A study published by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine found that a single-question screening test developed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism might help improve early detection of alcohol problems in the primary care setting. It identified patients with unhealthy alcohol use with a degree of accuracy on par with longer and more time-consuming screening instruments.

The question was this: "How many times in the past year have you had X or more drinks in a day?" (The value of X depended on the gender of the patient: for men, the value was 5; for women, 4.) If a patient's response was anything greater than "once in the past year," it could be a sign of unhealthy alcohol use.

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