Two Key Questions are Focus of New Teen Alcohol Screener for Pediatricians

    A new alcohol screening tool that focuses on two key questions is designed to help pediatricians spot children and adolescents at risk for alcohol-related problems. The doctor asks about the patient’s own drinking, as well as his or her friends’ alcohol use.

    Alcohol Screening and Brief Intervention for Youth: A Practitioner’s Guide, available from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), walks the doctor through the steps to take when patients say they or their friends drink, and helps them assess the level of risk for current and future alcohol problems.

    Screening for alcohol at a young age is very important because alcohol is by far the drug of choice among youth, says Vivian B. Faden, PhD, Director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications, and Associate Director for Behavioral Research at NIAAA. “Many kids drink, and when they do, they tend to binge drink,” she said. According to NIAAA, over the course of adolescence, the proportion of kids who drank in the previous year rose tenfold, from seven percent of 12 year olds to nearly 70 percent of 18 year olds.

    The guide addresses two key obstacles to alcohol screening of children and teens: time constraints and pediatricians’ comfort level in talking about drinking with their patients, says Dr. Faden. “Our instrument is easy to use and brief, and provides direction for what to do if patients say they are using alcohol,” she says.

    Depending on the patient’s age, the pediatrician selects from among three sets of questions – one for elementary school (starting at age nine), middle school (11-14) and high school (14-18) students. By using the guide, pediatricians can detect risk early, either before their patients start drinking, or at an early age, Dr. Faden says. It is empirically based, she notes. Both the screening questions and the scale that helps doctors determine a patient’s risk were developed by a panel of experts that analyzed national survey data on more than 166,000 youth and data collected over time on young people as they grew up.

    The guide is the first alcohol screening tool to include a question about friends’ drinking. It can be easier for a pediatrician to start the conversation by asking a patient about their friends’ alcohol habits, rather than their own, particularly with younger children, according to Dr. Faden.

    The new tool provides a chart to help pediatricians respond to patients who say they or their friends drink. The chart helps the doctor determine how at risk for unhealthy consequences the patient may be, based on age and how often the patient drinks. The tool also provides recommendations for next steps, ranging from a discussion about the risks of alcohol use to referrals for treatment for those who need it.

    NIAAA collaborated with the American Academy of Pediatrics in developing the guide, which will be mailed to every pediatrician in the country. In addition to the full publication, NIAAA is providing a pocket guide for pediatricians to easily consult.