Half of GPs say they're ineffective in treating problem drinkers

Alcohol consumption is linked to more than 60 medical conditions.

Almost half of Irish GPs believe they are ineffective in helping problem drinkers.

A survey by the Irish College of General Practitioners found that while two-thirds of family doctors feel prepared to counsel patients about their drinking, many question the effectiveness of their intervention.

At the same time, the vast majority are positive about their ability to help reduce a patient’s consumption level if they are given adequate information and training.

A third of GPs also report not having any access to an addiction counsellor.

Almost 500 registered family doctors, who are members of the Irish College of General Practitioners, took part in the survey.

More than two in five GPs said they screen patients for alcohol misuse by using a common questionnaire. Two-thirds report they have managed patients for hazardous drinking and alcohol dependency in the previous 12 months. The overwhelming majority of GPs said they initiate conversations around alcohol consumption even when the patients do not. 

When treating a patient who has an alcohol problem, a third of doctors recommend either total abstinence or cutting down. The remainder said they do not have a pre-determined approach, but adapt their advice to suit the patient.

ICGP director of research Claire Collins said that alcohol consumption is now linked to more than 60 medical conditions, with alcohol use disorders as common and as costly as depression and coronary heart disease.

Irish adults also rank among the highest consumers of alcohol in Europe, particularly in relation to binge drinking.

It is estimated that the overall annual cost of problem alcohol use here is €3.7bn.

Dr Collins said that earlier studies have shown that up to 20% of patients here have unhealthy drinking patterns.

“This survey highlighted the disparity of access to support services for GPs and their patients with alcohol problems, with some who did not have access to an addiction counsellor,” she said.

She claims many factors could contribute to doctors feeling they are ineffective in helping patients to reduce their alcohol consumption, including “the fact that we need to better understand how, why, when and what brief interventions work”.

Dr Collins said the impact of intervention by GPs may also be limited if patients do not regard their drinking as problematic.

The study acknowledges that the documentation of the alcohol consumption status of patients by GPs is poor.

Dr Collins said a clearer understanding is required of what interventions are effective, in order to maximise the potential impact of GPs in treating patients with an alcohol problem. She also called for the services available in the wider healthcare system, and Government policy on alcohol-related issues, to further support GPs and their patients.

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