Do Docs Have a Chance to Sober Up Teens?

Alcohol abuse can begin in adolescence but only about half of docs straight talk teens

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Where can teens learn the truth about unhealthy drinking habits? Doctors are an authority on the health risks. Maybe a quick word during an exam could increase education.

A recent survey asked American 10th graders whether the topic of alcohol was broached during a doctor’s visit within the last year. The survey results showed just over half of 16-year-olds who went to the doctor were asked whether they drank and less than half of those were given advice about curbing unhealthy drinking habits.

"Talk to your teen about health risks of alcohol abuse."

Ralph W. Hingson, ScD, MPH, from the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, MD, led a team of colleagues to investigate how doctors talk to adolescents about alcohol.

For the study, 2,519 10th grade high school students from all over the US in 2010 were surveyed about their drinking habits in the past month, as well as any doctor’s visits in the past year.

Participants were asked questions about their relationship with alcohol in the past 30 days:

  • How much alcohol had they consumed?
  • Did they ever binge drink?
  • Did they ever drink to intoxication?

Participants were asked questions about whether the doctor had engaged them in any conversation about drinking during their medical exam:

  • Did a healthcare professional ask about their drinking?
  • Had they been given advice about risks associated with alcohol?
  • Had they been advised to reduce alcohol consumption?
  • Had they been advised to stop drinking altogether?

Answers to those questions showed that in the past 30 days:

  • 36 percent drank alcohol, with 11 percent reporting they did so more than 6 times.
  • 28 percent binge drank alcohol, with 5 percent reporting they did so more than 6 times.
  • 23 percent had been intoxicated, with 7 percent reporting they had been intoxicated more than 6 times.

Only 82 percent had been to the doctor in the past year. The results of the questions about visits to the doctor showed:

  • 54 percent were asked about drinking.
  • Of the 54 percent, only 40 percent were advised about alcohol-related harms.
  • Of the 54 percent, only 17 percent were advised to reduce alcohol consumption or stop altogether.
  • Of binge drinkers, only 21 percent were advised to stop or reduce drinking.

The authors said, “Nonetheless, only 25 percent of them received that advice (to reduce or quit drinking) from physicians. In comparison, 36 percent of frequent smokers, 27 percent of frequent marijuana users, and 42 percent of frequent other drug users were advised to reduce or quit those behaviors.”

The authors concluded that more physicians should follow professional guidelines to screen and counsel teenagers about unhealthy alcohol use and any other behaviors that could cause a health risk.

Routine screening for unhealthy drinking habits in primary healthcare settings could improve patient education, especially among adolescents, about health risks associated with unhealthy drinking.

This study was published in January in Pediatrics.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse provided funding for this study. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 28, 2013
Last Updated:
February 1, 2013