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Doctors Can Uncover Drug or Alcohol Use With Just One Question: Study


Primary care doctors can discover whether patients are abusing drugs or alcohol by asking a single question, a new study finds.

Asking patients how many times in the past year they consumed five or more drinks in a day (for men), and four or more (for women) is just as effective as administering a longer screening questionnaire in uncovering alcohol dependence, according to Dr. Richard Saitz of the Boston University School of Public Health. Doctors can reveal drug dependence by asking, “How many times in the past year have you used an illegal drug or used a prescription medication for nonmedical reasons?” he said.

“We found that single questions may be useful in both screening and preliminary assessment” of substance-use severity, Dr. Saitz said in a news release. “Instead of extensive interviews or long questionnaires, which are a barrier to screening in primary care settings, this approach may make it much easier to identify and appropriately address unhealthy substance use.”

The study analyzed responses from 286 patients, Science Daily reports. The single alcohol question detected 88 percent of patients with alcohol dependence. The drug question detected 97 percent of patients with drug dependence, the article notes. The results were similar to those found with longer screening tests.

Current drug and alcohol screening tools generally range from three to more than 80 questions, with multiple response options, Dr. Saitz noted in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. If screening indicates a patient may have a problem with drugs or alcohol, the doctor may refer the patient to a specialist, programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, drug treatment, or other follow-up treatment. Patients at lower risk may benefit from brief counseling, according to Dr. Saitz.

13 Responses to this article

  1. Marcus Piper / January 23, 2014 at 1:38 am

    This link is to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, that published this study. It has information about cut-offs. It costs $30 to download the full study.

  2. Muhammad / January 22, 2014 at 11:13 pm

    Wouldn’t the alcohol use have to be put in context? Perhaps someone attended a function such as a wedding two or three times in the past year and fulfilled the limit of drinks in the article. Seems there needs some qualification of how to then interpret the responses. I would like to have seen the alcohol and drug references referred to in the article.

  3. Avatar of janice
    janice / January 18, 2014 at 10:37 am

    As if people who had substance abuse problems would actually honestly answer this question

  4. Avatar of John
    John / January 16, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    The article (and perhaps the study) does not identify the percentage of non-dependent persons who also drank 5 drinks in a row. If you want to differentiate between alcohol abuse vs alcohol dependence, a 5 drink question, won’t do that. Unless the single question screen can differentiate between dependent and non-dependent drinkers, it doesn’t say much other than to move on to a more comprehensive battery.

  5. Joe Miller / January 16, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    For anyone who believes all use is abuse I’m sure any single answer in the affirmative will confirm their diagnosis.

  6. S Goldberg / January 16, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    How many people with real alcohol or substance abuse problems would answer those questions truthfully? Not a good way to get accurate results for a study…

  7. Avatar of Lesa
    Lesa / January 16, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Can someone please give us the # or a guideline of what number will determine this?

  8. Avatar of Patricia
    Patricia / January 15, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    How many times in the past year does someone need to consume five/four or more drinks in a day for them to be determined alcohol dependent or at least warrant a referral? And same for the question about times used illegal drugs or misused prescription drugs. Thank you for your help.

  9. Avatar of Rose
    Rose / January 15, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Bert, I think the article means that of the participants who were determined to have drug or alcohol dependency, the one-question test was able to accurately “diagnose” 97% and 88% respectively.

  10. Susie / January 15, 2014 at 4:40 am

    Oh,sorry, I didn’t mean that to be critical of this post — it was the original article in Science News that was confusingly written.

  11. Avatar of bert singleton
    bert singleton / January 14, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    I must not be reading this correctly – 97% of the 286 patients in the study have a drug dependency and 88% an alcohol dependency -something doesn’t ring true if this is being applied to the general population

  12. rachael / January 14, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    He’s referring to how many people WITH substance use disorders were correctly identified has having a substance use problem. So what the study is saying is that 97% of people in the study who HAD drug dependency were correctly identified as having a drug dependency and 88% of those with alcohol dependency were correctly identified as having alcohol dependency. :)

  13. Avatar of Susie
    Susie / January 15, 2014 at 4:30 am

    You’re not reading it correctly — although that’s not really your fault, they could have written it much more clearly. The subject of the study was the effectiveness of the screening tool, not how many people in the sample were alcoholics or drug addicts. The screening tool turns out to be quite effective, since it successfully identified 88% of the respondents who were alcoholics, and 97% of the respondents who were drug dependent. We aren’t told what percentage of the respondents were alcoholics and/or drug addicts, only that, of those respondents, the screening tool was able to identify a large majority of them.

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