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.