Background: Unhealthy alcohol use is prevalent but under-diagnosed in primary care settings.
Objective: To validate, in primary care, a single-item screening test for unhealthy alcohol use recommended by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Design: Cross-sectional study.
Participants: Adult English-speaking patients recruited from primary care waiting rooms.
Measurements: Participants were asked the single screening question, “How many times in the past year have you had X or more drinks in a day?”, where X is 5 for men and 4 for women, and a response of 1 or greater [corrected] is considered positive. Unhealthy alcohol use was defined as the presence of an alcohol use disorder, as determined by a standardized diagnostic interview, or risky consumption, as determined using a validated 30-day calendar method.
Main results: Of 394 eligible primary care patients, 286 (73%) completed the interview. The single-question screen was 81.8% sensitive (95% confidence interval (CI) 72.5% to 88.5%) and 79.3% specific (95% CI 73.1% to 84.4%) for the detection of unhealthy alcohol use. It was slightly more sensitive (87.9%, 95% CI 72.7% to 95.2%) but was less specific (66.8%, 95% CI 60.8% to 72.3%) for the detection of a current alcohol use disorder. Test characteristics were similar to that of a commonly used three-item screen, and were affected very little by subject demographic characteristics.
Conclusions: The single screening question recommended by the NIAAA accurately identified unhealthy alcohol use in this sample of primary care patients. These findings support the use of this brief screen in primary care.