Primary care residents lack comfort and experience with alcohol screening and brief intervention: a multi-site survey

J Gen Intern Med. 2015 Jun;30(6):790-6. doi: 10.1007/s11606-015-3184-y.


Background: Approximately one in six adults in the United States (U.S.) binge drinks. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that primary care physicians screen patients for such hazardous alcohol use, and when warranted, deliver a brief intervention.

Objective: We aimed to determine primary care residents' current practices, perceived barriers and confidence with conducting alcohol screening and brief interventions (SBI).

Design: This was a multi-site, cross-sectional survey conducted from March 2010 through December 2012.

Participants: We invited all residents in six primary care residency programs (three internal medicine programs and three family medicine programs) to participate. Of 244 residents, 210 completed the survey (response rate 86 %).

Main measures: Our survey assessed residents' alcohol screening practices (instruments used and frequency of screening), perceived barriers to discussing alcohol, brief intervention content, and self-rated ability to help hazardous drinkers. To determine the quality of brief interventions delivered, we examined how often residents reported including the three key recommended elements of feedback, advice, and goal-setting.

Key results: Most residents (60 %, 125/208) reported "usually" or "always" screening patients for alcohol misuse at the initial clinic visit, but few residents routinely screened patients at subsequent acute-care (17 %, 35/208) or chronic-care visits (33 %, 68/208). Only 19 % (39/210) of residents used screening instruments capable of detecting binge drinking. The most frequently reported barrier to SBI was lack of adequate training (54 %, 108/202), and only 21 % (43/208) of residents felt confident they could help at -risk drinkers. When residents did perform a brief intervention, only 24 % (49/208) "usually" or "always" included the three recommended elements.

Conclusions: A minority of residents in this multi-site study appropriately screen or intervene with at-risk alcohol users. To equip residents to effectively address hazardous alcohol use, there is a critical need for educational and clinic interventions to support alcohol-related SBI.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol-Related Disorders / prevention & control*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Early Medical Intervention
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Internal Medicine
  • Internship and Residency / methods*
  • Mass Screening / methods*
  • Primary Health Care / methods*