Physicians May Have Trouble Identifying Alcohol Abuse

physician talking to therapist about alcohol abuseA trip to the family physician for heart problems, elevated blood pressure, or diabetes may not uncover another dangerous underlying problem. Doctors treat many patients for the symptoms the patients come into the office for, but often fail to notice a problem the patient is not mentioning--alcoholism. Without treatment for alcoholism, the patient continues to exacerbate their other symptoms and the doctor's lack of training leaves them unable to recognize symptoms and help fully treat the patient.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

For those with alcohol addiction, the primary care physician is the only doctor that they may ever see. If the doctor can recognize symptoms of alcohol abuse, the patient's health is more likely to improve in all aspects. But the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York reports that most physicians are not trained well enough to identify substance abuse in patients that come in complaining of other ailments.

If the patient denies their abuse or is too embarrassed to mention it, they will not seek help from a substance abuse treatment specialist or their family doctor. Without testing the patient for substance abuse, the doctor may be unaware of the problem.

Symptoms of Alcoholic Patients

A little over 40 million people in America suffer from substance abuse addiction, but many are not receiving adequate treatment. A doctor cannot automatically know that a person has a substance abuse addiction, but there are some symptoms that may encourage doctors to ask a few simple questions about the patient's alcohol consumption.

Dr. Patrick G. O'Connor, MD, MPH, at the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut, states that the following illnesses can be connected to alcohol abuse:

  • Hypertension
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Liver and pancreatic problems
  • Cardiac arrhythmia
  • Dementia

Asking the person questions about their frequency of alcohol use, and administering physical exams and lab tests can help identify alcoholism.

Obstacles to Substance Abuse Recognition and Treatment

Multiple problems may be keeping physicians from recognizing and treating substance abuse in their patients:

  • Limited time with patient
  • Patient does not tell doctor about alcohol use
  • Lack of training on alcoholism in medical school
  • Patients' unwillingness to get treated for alcoholism
  • Insurance coverage for addiction treatment
  • Physician's blame patient for alcoholism
  • Other illness symptoms are more apparent

Researchers suggest better training and screening tests to identify substance abuse problems in patients that exhibit possible symptoms.

Better Training For Better Care

Organizations like the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggest that doctors respectfully raise more questions about the alcohol consumption of their patients. Without accusatory or condescending tones, physicians can help the patient deal with their substance abuse and improve their overall health.

Multiple tests like the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test are available to aid doctors. The American Board of Addiction Medicine now offers residency programs in addiction medicine to help train physicians. Other substance abuse organizations encourage doctors to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and learn first-hand about the needs, symptoms, and stories of the patients that may be walking into their office.

Posted on November 3rd, 2012
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

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