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Brief chat with GP helps heavy drinkers cut down

If you registered with a GP’s practice in the last five years, you will have been asked by your doctor or practice nurse several health questions, including how much alcohol you drink in a week. This method of screening patients and identifying those that drink too much alcohol is now common practice in the UK and is used to screen around 1.75 million people a year. If a patient’s drinking placed them at increased risk for damage to their health, they may have been offered advice by their GP or nurse on why and how they should cut down. This method of helping people drink more safely was pioneered in the early 1980s by Professor Nick Heather of Northumbria University.

It has been shown that this approach, called identification and brief advice, can produce reductions in alcohol consumption. Because this approach has been shown to be effective, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) now recommends that NHS professionals should routinely carry out alcohol screening as an integral part of practice and offer a session of structured brief advice to those identified as hazardous or harmful drinkers.

In advice to ‘make every contact count’, the NHS Future Forum has also recommended that NHS staff in England should routinely take the opportunity to talk to patients about lifestyle, including alcohol consumption, even when the presenting problem has not obvious connection with it and, when required, offer motivationally-based advice on lifestyle change.

“Brief interventions has been adopted as one of our principal recommended interventions and has been included in formal health programmes including the NHS Health Check for adults aged 40-75,” said Don Lavoie, Alcohol Programme Manager for Public Health England. “Prof Heather has been a leader in this field for many years and his research has been influential in shaping our policy.”

As well as advising on policy and producing guidance, Prof Heather and his colleagues have also produced information packs which included a guide for clinicians, two levels of brief intervention, screening materials, a patient booklet, waiting room posters and training materials for both levels of intervention. The researchers’ work was used by the Public Health England to set up the Alcohol Learning Centre – a website that provides online resources and learning for commissioners, planners and practitioners working to reduce alcohol-related harm.

Prof Heather has also worked with other organisations internationally to spread the word about the technique of brief interventions. He set up the International Network on Brief Interventions for Alcohol Problems (INEBRIA) which promotes a wide implementation of brief interventions in a variety of settings for hazardous and harmful alcohol consumption at local, national and international levels.

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