Alcoholism is one of the most common psychosocial disorders, affecting approximately 10% of the general population. The impact of alcoholism on the care of patients with other medical illnesses has not been addressed in many of these populations, including patients with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) undergoing hemodialysis. We set out to determine the prevalence of alcoholism in an urban hemodialysis population and ascertain whether alcoholism had an effect on compliance in this population. One hundred sixty-three urban hemodialysis patients were screened using the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test (MAST), a 25-item questionnaire that has been validated in multiple trials. Forty-five patients (27.6%) scored 5 or greater on the MAST. The MAST-positive subjects were younger (age, 55 +/- 15 years versus 64 +/- 13 years) and tended to be men (58% versus 43%). There was no significant difference in the incidence of diabetic kidney disease; however, there were significantly more human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-positive patients in the MAST-positive group. The dietary compliance measures of predialysis potassium or phosphorus levels did not differ between the two groups. A trend toward lower serum albumin level was evident in the men in the MAST-positive group (3.75 +/- 0.57 versus 3.91 +/- 0.30 g/dL; P = 0.0212). In conclusion, there is a high prevalence of alcoholism in the urban dialysis population. Alcoholic patients with ESRD are younger and tend to be men. HIV-positive patients with ESRD have a high prevalence of concomitant alcoholism. Compliance indicators of predialysis potassium and phosphorus levels are not affected. However, nutritional status, measured by serum albumin level, tends to be poorer in the alcoholic group.