Making Time to Talk About Alcohol Use

Apr 1, 2022

By Diana Ling, MA and Leslie Sirrianni, LCSW

Professional counselor giving advice to client or patient during a sessionFour in five adults who reported being asked about their alcohol use at a checkup in the past two years and reported current binge drinking were not counseled to reduce their drinking, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report. Looking closer at the data, just 14 percent of women who binge drink said they received advice to reduce drinking, compared to 25 percent of men.

Why aren’t these much-needed conversations happening? Some healthcare providers say they feel uncomfortable talking about alcohol use with patients. Other factors include time constraints, as well as concerns about privacy and confidentiality.

The consequences of these gaps in patient care are serious – especially for women. Studies show women are more likely to experience problems such as alcohol use disorder, liver damage and certain cancers sooner and at lower levels of drinking than men do. And alcohol-exposed pregnancies can lead to a range of lifelong physical, behavioral, and learning problems, known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). There is no known safe amount, no safe time, and no safe type of alcohol use during pregnancy.

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April is Alcohol Awareness Month, an opportunity for social workers to make alcohol screening and brief intervention (SBI) part of routine care. If you’re not sure how to begin, consider screening all adult patients – including those who are pregnant – as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends. Using a validated screening instrument takes just a few minutes – and should be followed by a brief conversation with those who are drinking at risky levels, and referral to treatment when applicable.

NASW and the NASW Foundation are partners with the Health Behavior Research and Training Institute at The University of Texas at Austin Steve Hicks School of Social Work in the Collaborative for Alcohol-Free Pregnancy. This CDC initiative enlists leading medical organizations in a cross-discipline effort to encourage health professionals to use proven prevention practice in routine patient care.

Visit NASW’s Behavioral Health webpage for professional development resources. Additional clinical resources are available through our Collaborative partners:

 

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