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Primary Care Doctors and Alcoholism

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How can Primary Care Doctors Help People with Alcoholism?

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) conducted in 2019, an estimated 14.5 million adults ages 18 and older in the United States had alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the past year.

Navigation: What is Alcohol Use Disorder?, What is a Primary Care Doctor?, How Do Primary Care Doctors Help People with Alcoholism?, Screening Tools for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, What Are Appropriate Interventions for Alcohol Use Disorder?, Managing Withdrawal Symptoms with Medication-Assisted Treatment, How Can Primary Care Providers Support People with Alcohol Use Disorder?, Eliminating Personal Biases, How to Reduce Your Alcohol Consumption, Rehab Is Your Best Chance


Did you know that around 20% to 25% of US adults partake in unhealthy alcohol use? In fact, studies show 14% of American adults has an AUD, also known as an alcohol use disorder.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) conducted in 2019, an estimated 14.5 million adults ages 18 and older in the United States had alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the past year. This corresponds to approximately 5.8% of the population. Additionally, an estimated 401,000 adolescents ages 12-17 had AUD in the past year.

Even with these numbers, only a small portion of the population actually receives the care that they need to recover from their alcoholism. Primary care doctors play a crucial role in the fight against alcoholism, and here we will explore various strategies they can employ to effectively treat patients.


What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder, also known as alcoholism, is a serious medical condition. It is a chronic and progressive condition characterized by a strong desire to consume alcohol despite its negative consequences. It is a type of substance abuse disorder in which a person has a dependence on alcohol that interferes with their daily life and relationships.

Just like with other types of substance use disorder, an addicted person will keep drinking even when they are already experiencing the adverse health effects.

Alcoholism can have a significant impact on a person’s physical, mental, and emotional health. It can lead to serious health problems, including liver disease, heart disease, and neurological disorders.

Unfortunately there is still stigma surrounding addiction, alcoholism, and the rehab process. This is why many people are hesitant to seek treatment. Contrary to popular belief, addiction is not a moral failing nor is it a sign of weakness.

Alcoholism is a legitimate condition that requires proper medical attention. In fact, the long term consequences of alcohol abuse can be devastating.

The symptoms of alcoholism can vary from mild to severe and can include cravings for alcohol, loss of control over drinking, withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit, and tolerance to the effects of alcohol.

While there is no cure for alcoholism, it can be effectively treated with a combination of medication, therapy, and support groups. It is important for individuals struggling with alcoholism to seek help as soon as possible to prevent further harm and improve their chances of recovery.


What is a Primary Care Doctor?

A primary care physician, also known as a general practitioner or family physician, is a medical professional who provides primary healthcare services to patients. They are usually the first point of contact for patients seeking medical care, and they are trained to diagnose and treat a wide range of health problems.

Primary care doctors provide a variety of healthcare services, including routine physical exams, preventive care, behavioral counseling interventions, management of chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and treatment of acute illnesses and injuries. They also provide referrals to specialists when necessary and coordinate care for their patients across different healthcare settings.

In general, primary care doctors play a critical role in promoting the health and well-being of their patients, and they are often considered the cornerstone of the healthcare system. But more specifically, primary care physicians are important in the field of alcohol addiction medicine because they help patients who have severe physical and psychological health problems due to this chronic disease.

By integrating alcoholism into primary care, patient outcomes can be improved while reducing healthcare costs.

How Do Primary Care Doctors Help People with Alcoholism

Primary care doctors play a crucial role in treating alcohol problems such as alcohol misuse and alcohol addiction.

First of all, they can screen their patients for alcohol use disorder by asking questions about their drinking habits. They can then diagnose alcoholism based on the criteria set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This also allows them to assess the type of medical treatment that would work best for that patient based on their specific needs.

Primary care doctors also provide medical support to patients with alcoholism. They help manage withdrawal symptoms, prescribe medication for alcohol cravings, and treat co-occurring medical conditions such as liver disease.

If there’s a better program that may be suitable for the specific patient, primary care doctors can refer them to the appropriate treatment program. Depending on the patient’s condition, they may recommend inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation programs or counseling services.

While the patient goes through the process of addiction treatment, the primary care doctor can monitor their progress and provide ongoing support and counseling. This allows the patient to make significant progress while receiving the kind of emotional and medical support that they need.

Patients can even be educated by their primary care physician about the risks associated with alcoholism and substance use disorder in general. They can provide guidance on how to reduce alcohol consumption or quit drinking altogether. They can even provide resources and support for those who may be at risk of developing alcoholism.

Speaking of resources, if you are doing your own research on addiction and the treatment process, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is an example of a reliable source of information.

Primary care doctors can play a critical role in helping people with alcoholism by providing support, diagnosis, and treatment options, as well as education and prevention strategies.

Screening Tools for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

One of the best ways to integrate alcohol abuse and alcoholism treatment into primary care practice is through the use of screening tools. Screening tools can help identify the early signs of alcoholism before it becomes a severe problem. Early detection can increase the chances of successful treatment and recovery.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) encourages primary care physicians to screen all adult patients at least once a year for alcohol use.

There are various screening tools that can be used to achieve this goal, including the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) or the CAGE questionnaire.

The CAGE questionnaire is a simple screening tool that is used to identify possible alcohol dependence or abuse. It consists of four questions, with each letter in the name CAGE representing a specific question:

Have you ever felt you should Cut down on your drinking?

Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?

Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

If a person answers “yes” to two or more questions, it suggests that they may have a problem with alcohol and further evaluation may be needed. However, it’s important to note that the CAGE questionnaire is only a screening tool and not a diagnostic tool, and a professional evaluation should always be sought to confirm any suspicion of alcohol abuse or addiction.

This is just one example of a screening tool for alcoholism. These tools can potentially motivate people with alcoholism to seek help and make positive changes. The results of a screening can help individuals understand the risks associated with their drinking and encourage them to take action.

Screening tools also provide an objective assessment of a person’s alcohol consumption patterns and help identify potential problems that may not be immediately apparent.

As for healthcare providers, screening tools may help them tailor treatment plans to an individual’s specific needs. The results of the screening can inform the level of care needed, such as outpatient treatment or inpatient rehab.

These tools can even be used to monitor progress and measure the effectiveness of treatment over time. By regularly screening individuals with alcoholism, healthcare providers can make adjustments to treatment plans and ensure that individuals are making progress towards their recovery goals.

Screening tools can be a valuable resource for people with alcoholism, their families, and primary care doctors in identifying and addressing alcohol-related problems.

Again, screening tools are different from diagnostic tools. A positive result does not necessarily mean that someone has an alcohol use disorder. It is recommended that healthcare professionals follow up with a comprehensive assessment and diagnosis.

What Are Appropriate Interventions for Alcohol Use Disorder?

Once a patient has been identified as potentially struggling with alcohol use disorder with the help of a screening tool, proper intervention methods can then be used to get them on the right path.

Since alcohol use disorder is a chronic and relapsing condition, it typically requires a comprehensive approach to treatment. The appropriate interventions for AUD depend on the severity of the disorder and the needs of the individual. Here are some of the interventions that are commonly used:

Behavioral Therapy: Therapy can help individuals develop coping skills and learn strategies to manage cravings and avoid relapse. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and contingency management are some of the approaches used.

Medical Detox: A detoxification program may be necessary for individuals who are physically dependent on alcohol. This stage of treatment involves gradually lowering the patient’s intake of alcohol while their withdrawal symptoms are managed by medical professionals.

Inpatient Rehabilitation: For severe cases of AUD, inpatient rehabilitation can provide a structured environment for detoxification, medical care, and intensive therapy.

Outpatient Rehabilitation: Outpatient rehabilitation offers similar treatment options as inpatient rehabilitation, but with the flexibility to continue working or attending school. This helps patients get the treatment that they need while still keeping up with their responsibilities outside of rehab.

Mutual Support Groups: Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can provide a supportive community and help individuals stay committed to their recovery.

Self-Help Strategies: Self-help strategies like exercise, meditation, and mindfulness can help individuals manage stress and maintain sobriety.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): Medications like naltrexone, Acamprosate, and disulfiram can help manage cravings, reduce withdrawal symptoms, and prevent relapse.

The interventions listed above can effectively reduce alcohol consumption and improve patient outcomes. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for alcoholism. In some cases, patients may have to try different interventions or combinations of interventions to find what works best for them.

These interventions will allow patients to gain valuable insight into their own drinking habits and unhealthy alcohol use. They can recognize the causes of their addictive behavior and identify the consequences of their actions.

During treatment, they can even learn healthy coping strategies that will help them manage their triggers and cravings. This way, they can avoid their triggers and focus their energy on something more productive and fulfilling than drinking alcohol.

Primary care providers can provide professional help while the patient is dealing with AUD. Their help is necessary as alcoholism can be a complex and challenging condition to manage on your own.

Managing Withdrawal Symptoms with Medication-Assisted Treatment

Out of all the interventions mentioned above, one of the most interesting ones to discuss and implement for primary care practice is medication-assisted treatment. This is because most people who try to quit alcohol eventually experience withdrawal symptoms.

These withdrawal symptoms may range from mild to life-threatening, and it is those severe cases we really need to watch out for. Alcohol is notorious for causing dangerous withdrawal effects, and that is why it is never a good idea to quit cold turkey.

Withdrawal symptoms of alcoholism can vary in severity and duration depending on the level of alcohol dependency and length of time of alcohol abuse. Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms of alcoholism include: tremors, anxiety or nervousness, sweating, headache, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, sleep disturbances, irritability, mood swings, rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, hallucinations, and delirium tremens (DTs).

Severe withdrawal symptoms like seizures, hallucinations, and DTs can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention. It’s important for individuals who are struggling with alcoholism to seek medical help when they decide to quit drinking to ensure a safe and successful detoxification process.

Addicted patients may go through MAT or medication-assisted treatment, which is a type of treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs) that combines the use of medications with counseling and behavioral therapies to address the physical and psychological aspects of addiction.

MAT is commonly used for opioid addiction, but it can also be used for other substance addictions including alcohol and tobacco. The medications used in MAT work by reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms, making it easier for individuals to stop using the substance they are addicted to. MAT can effectively reduce a person’s alcohol consumption. Primary care physicians can determine the appropriate medication and dosage for each patient based on their individual needs.

MAT is often used in conjunction with behavioral therapy to help individuals address the underlying causes of their addiction and develop coping skills to prevent relapse. The combination of medication and therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment approach for many individuals with SUDs.

How Can Primary Care Providers Support People with Alcohol Use Disorder?

So to summarize, there are plenty of ways primary care providers can support people who are struggling with alcohol addiction.

They can routinely screen patients for alcohol use disorder by asking about their alcohol consumption. If a patient is found to have alcohol use disorder, they can conduct a more comprehensive assessment to determine the severity of the problem and recognize any co-occurring mental or physical health conditions.

For patients who are at risk of developing alcohol use disorder or have mild to moderate alcohol use disorder, primary care providers can provide brief interventions that can help reduce alcohol consumption. Brief interventions may include motivational interviewing, goal setting, and providing education about the health risks of excessive alcohol use.

Primary care providers can also give referrals for patients who require specialized treatment. Patients with severe alcohol use disorder, for example, may be referred to addiction specialists or rehab facilities that specialize in alcoholism.

Primary care providers can also prescribe medications that can help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol use disorder.

Their support can continue even beyond screening and intervention. They can provide ongoing support and monitoring to patients with alcohol use disorder by regularly checking in with them and providing follow-up care. They can even recommend support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or other community resources so the patient can get ongoing support as they work on their sobriety.

Primary care providers play a crucial role in the healthcare system by providing comprehensive and continuous medical care to patients and this also applies to those in recovery for addiction. They ensure the health and well-being of individuals and communities. They are essential for providing high-quality, accessible, and coordinated healthcare services that are personalized to each patient’s needs.

Eliminating Personal Biases

In order to truly help an individual who is recovering from an addiction, it is important to fight the stigma surrounding their condition. This means eliminating your own biases towards people struggling with alcoholism. Alcoholism is a serious medical condition that requires appropriate diagnosis and treatment, so patients cannot easily recover if their care providers are still buying into the misconceptions surrounding addiction.

When doctors have biases towards alcoholism, they are less likely to accurately identify and diagnose patients with alcohol use disorders. This can sometimes lead to delays in treatment or inadequate treatment, which can have serious consequences for the patient’s health and well-being.

Additionally, biases towards alcoholism can also result in discrimination against the people who suffer from this condition. Patients may be less likely to seek help if they feel judged or stigmatized by their healthcare providers. This can further perpetuate the cycle of addiction and prevent patients from receiving the care they need to recover.

By eliminating biases towards alcoholism, primary care doctors can provide more effective and compassionate care to patients with alcohol use disorders. This involves taking a non-judgmental approach to assessing and treating alcoholism, and recognizing that it is a complex and multifaceted condition that requires a comprehensive approach to treatment.

How to Reduce Your Alcohol Consumption

Although primary care doctors can help you with your alcohol addiction, there are still plenty of steps you can take to reduce your own alcohol consumption. This can work wonders while you are in recovery. It can serve as a positive step towards a healthier lifestyle. Here are some tips that may help:

Set a goal: Decide how much you want to reduce your alcohol intake and set a specific goal. This can help you stay focused and motivated.

Keep track: Monitor your alcohol consumption by keeping a journal or using an app. This will help you see how much you’re drinking and identify patterns or triggers.

Plan ahead: If you know you’ll be in a situation where alcohol is present, plan ahead by deciding how much you’ll drink or bringing non-alcoholic alternatives.

Find support: Let your friends and family know about your goal to reduce your alcohol intake, and ask for their support. You may also want to consider joining a support group or seeking professional help.

Avoid triggers: Identify what triggers your desire to drink and try to avoid those situations. For example, if you tend to drink when you’re stressed, find alternative ways to manage stress such as exercise or meditation.

Replace alcohol with healthier alternatives: Instead of reaching for a drink, try drinking water, herbal tea, or other non-alcoholic beverages.

Take it one day at a time: Reducing your alcohol consumption is a process, and it’s important to take it one day at a time. Celebrate your successes along the way and don’t beat yourself up if you slip up. Just get back on track as soon as possible.

Do not quit cold turkey as this can be dangerous for your health. Don’t be afraid to seek proper addiction treatment.

Look for an addiction treatment center near you today and get started on the road to recovery. While there is no cure for addiction, you can still regain your sobriety and start living a healthy life that is free from alcohol.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.


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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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