Should Doctors Do More to Educate Their Patients About Alcohol Risks?

When you visit your doctor there are a few standard questions you’ll be asked: How are you feeling? What’s going on in your life? Do you have any health concerns? Now the government agency that keeps tabs on our nation’s health is asking doctors to spend more time discussing alcohol use with patients.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published a report in which they call on physicians to provide more in-office screenings and introductory counseling on alcohol consumption. The CDC believes doctors could be effective in teaching patients to set and achieve proper alcohol use goals.

With all of the confusion surrounding Obamacare it’s hard to know what’s covered. The CDC wants patients – and doctors – to know that the Affordable Care Act provides no charge alcohol use screening and counseling for most insured people. Research shows that screenings and counseling can lower heavy drinking by as much as 25 percent. And according to the CDC, a lot of Americans are drinking heavily.

The CDC estimates that 38 million Americans, or one of every six people, are heavy drinkers. The figure is based on data collected from 458,000 adults that took part in a 2011 national survey.

People 18- to 34-years-old make up the largest segment of heavy drinkers, with college kids consumng the most of any age group each time they binge on alcohol. Binge drinking is defined as at least four drinks in two to three hours for women and at least five drinks in that time frame for men. College age drinkers typically consume nine drinks each time they binge. And while those 65 years and older don’t drink that much per episode, they tend to binge more frequently – around five to six times each month.

Way too many Americans are drinking too much alcohol. And yet, the CDC says that only 25 percent of heavy drinkers ever discuss drinking with their physician. This should be of concern to everyone because alcohol consumption is a factor in a number of health concerns, and drinking too much costs all Americans a lot of money.

Heavy drinking is responsible for 88,000 deaths in this country each year and is related to many serious injuries like falls, car crashes, drownings, burns and shootings. It’s also responsible for a number of serious illnesses like high blood pressure, pancreatitis, sexually transmitted diseases, liver disease, mental illness and cancer.

A February 2013 report found that breast cancer is the number one cancer death linked to alcohol use for women. For men, cancers of the throat, mouth and esophagus were the leading alcohol-connected cancer killers.

The CDC says that when you add up reduced job performance, damage to property and health care expenses, heavy drinking costs Americans somewhere around $224 billion. That means every drink costs all of us $1.90 and all of us pay $746 for each person who over drinks.

Although binge drinking affects many Americans and is costing the nation money and lives, just one out of every six people surveyed reported that their doctor had asked them about their alcohol use. The CDC’s most recent report is challenging doctors to change that.

They want physicians to make alcohol part of their regular patient intake conversations and explain why binge drinking is so hazardous. This won’t eliminate the problem, but could reduce it significantly.