How primary care providers talk to patients about alcohol: a qualitative study

J Gen Intern Med. 2006 Sep;21(9):966-72. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1497.2006.00490.x.


Background: Alcohol misuse is a common and well-documented source of morbidity and mortality. Brief primary care alcohol counseling has been shown to benefit patients with alcohol misuse.

Objective: To describe alcohol-related discussions between primary care providers and patients who screened positive for alcohol misuse.

Design: An exploratory, qualitative analysis of audiotaped primary care visits containing discussions of alcohol use.

Participants: Participants were 29 male outpatients at a Veterans Affairs (VA) General Internal Medicine Clinic who screened positive for alcohol misuse and their 14 primary care providers, all of whom were participating in a larger quality improvement trial.

Measurements: Audiotaped visits with any alcohol-related discussion were transcribed and coded using grounded theory and conversation analysis, both qualitative research techniques.

Results: Three themes were identified: (1) patients disclosed information regarding their alcohol use, but providers often did not explore these disclosures; (2) advice about alcohol use was typically vague and/or tentative in contrast to smoking-related advice, which was more common and usually more clear and firm; and (3) discomfort on the part of the provider was evident during alcohol-related discussions.

Limitations: Generalizability of findings from this single-site VA study is unknown.

Conclusion: Findings from this single site study suggest that provider discomfort and avoidance are important barriers to evidence-based brief alcohol counseling. Further investigation into current alcohol counseling practices is needed to determine whether these patterns extend to other primary care settings, and to inform future educational efforts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alcoholism / psychology*
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Tape Recording