Screening & Intervention
Problem Drinkers Benefit From Brief Physician Advice
University Digest of Addiction Theory & Application
A brief, low-cost intervention conducted by a primary care physician can
reduce problem drinking, with associated decreases in health problems
and alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, according to an article
published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental
Researcher Michael Fleming, M.D., and colleagues from the University
of Wisconsin Medical School studied the effects of brief interventions
by physicians on a sample of primary care patients with drinking
problems, and found that the positive effects continued for up to four
years following the intervention.
The Fleming et al. study was part of Project TrEAT (Trial for Early
Alcohol Treatment), which was conducted in the offices of 64
community-based primary care physicians in southern Wisconsin. As part
of the project, all patients, ages 18 - 65, were asked to complete a
self-administered health screening questionnaire when care" control
group (N = 382) or an experimental group (N = 392).
Subjects in the control group were given a general health booklet and
told to contact their physicians if they had health concerns after
reading the booklet. Subjects in the experimental group received the
same booklet and were scheduled to see their physician for the brief
intervention. The intervention consisted of two 15-minute sessions
scheduled one month apart, and two five-minute follow-up phone calls
from an office nurse. During the intervention, physicians followed a
scripted workbook with tasks for subjects to complete at home.
Outcome variables included alcohol use, motor vehicle and legal
events, injuries, health care utilization, health status and mortality.
Subjects were interviewed at six, 12, 24, 36 and 48 months following the
intervention. They were asked to recall alcohol consumption in the past
seven days and binge drinking episodes in the past 30 days. Other
outcome information was gathered through state of Wisconsin records, the
Social Security Death Index and from family member contacts. Medical and
social costs and benefits were also calculated.
Significant differences between the experimental and control groups
emerged during the four-year follow-up period. Men in the experimental
group reduced their alcohol use from 21.3 drinks/week at baseline to
14.4 drinks; women reduced their consumption from 14.8 drinks/week to
8.4 drinks. Both of these reductions were evident at six-month follow-up
and were maintained throughout the study period. Controls also reduced
their drinking, but not as much as the experimental subjects.
Binge drinking was also reduced at six months for both groups, but
increased through 48 months.
A reduction in the number of very heavy drinkers in the experimental
group was also identified. This was defined as consuming more than 20
drinks per week for men and more than 13 drinks per week for women. The
number of subjects in the treatment group meeting this criteria
decreased from 46.7 percent to 22.4 percent -- a 57 percent reduction
over the 48-month follow-up period, compared to a decrease from 49.2
percent to 26.4 percent for the control group. Although both groups
experienced a decrease, the greater improvement in the experimental
group compared to the improvement in the control group was statistically
Patients in the experimental group had 20 percent fewer emergency
department visits and 37 percent fewer days of hospitalization. Subjects
in the usual care group experienced more traffic fatalities and 55
percent more crashes with nonfatal injuries, as well as 46 percent more
Cost-benefit analysis indicated a medical care savings of $712 per
patient; $102 for legal events and $7,171 savings per patient in motor
vehicle crashes. In addition, 10 subjects died during the follow-up
period, including seven in the usual care group and three in the
The use of self-report data for changes in alcohol use and health care
utilization is a potential limitation of this study.
This study provides the first direct evidence that brief physician
advice is associated with reductions in alcohol use, health care
utilization, legal events and associated costs. The authors estimate
that each $1 spent on this brief intervention saves $4.30 for the health
care system, with even greater savings if societal costs are included.
Patients drinking above recommended limits of alcohol use can respond to
brief physician advice, with significant benefits to patients, the
health care system and society.
Fleming MF, Mundt MP, French MT, Baier Manwell L, Stauffacher EA,
Lawton Berry KF: Brief physician advice for problem drinkers: Long-term
efficacy and benefit-cost analysis. Alcoholism: Clinical and
Experimental Research 2002; 26:36-43. Correspondence to: Dr.
Fleming, Dept. of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 777
S. Mills St., Madison, WI 53715.