Doctors fail to spot drinking problems when patients are sober

Doctors are struggling to spot drinking problems unless their patients turn up drunk, new research has found.Doctors fail to spot drinking problems when patients are soberWhen patients are not already intoxicated, GPs on average are only able to identify 40 per cent of problem drinkers, according to an overview of 39 previous studies by Leicester University researchers, involving 20,000 patients.

Hospital doctors fared little better, diagnosing 50 per cent, while mental health specialists were able to identify 55 per cent of problem drinkers, their analysis found.

Correct diagnosis rates did not improve even in studies where some patients had self reported drinking problems, suggesting that the blame lies with doctors’ unwillingness to ask appropriate questions about patients’ drinking habits, the researchers said.

Only alcohol intoxication was being satisfactorily diagnosed, with nine out of ten cases of drunkenness being correctly spotted by doctors in A&E departments, according to the study in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Dr Alex Mitchell, who led the study, said: “When clinicians try and spot alcohol problems they often miss patients who have serious alcohol problems but who are not currently intoxicated. Further they can misidentify about 5 per cent of normal drinkers as problem drinkers.

“We did not find that patients refused to admit alcohol problems, in fact it was more common for patients to disclose problem drinking when asked to self-report than the number found by clinicians’ judgements alone.”


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