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Doctors not quizzing patients over alcohol

19th February 2013

Clinicians in the United States are failing to ask some basic questions regarding people's alcohol consumption, causing them to miss around three-quarters of alcohol problems in their patients, new research has found.


The study comes as public health experts are warning that even moderate alcohol consumption is a strong risk factor for many types of cancer, and should be addressed as a preventive measure.

Researchers in Texas found that primary care clinicians failed to ask basic alcohol screening questions of people who came in for other health problems like high blood pressure.

According to study co-author Barbara J. Turner of the University of Texas School of Medicine, general practitioner offices lack coherent systems for giving out and compiling the results of patient questionnaires for certain issues, including alcohol problems.

Questions that went unasked included: "In the past 12 months, how often have you had a drink containing alcohol?" and "In the past 12 months, how often have you been under the influence of alcohol in situations where you could have caused an accident or got hurt?"

The results come alongside a study that blames one in every 30 deaths from cancer in the country on alcohol.

While researchers found a close link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer, they warn that men who drink are also more likely to die of cancers of the mouth, throat and oesophagus, with such deaths numbering around 6,000 annually in the US alone.

And people who died from alcohol-related cancers lost on average 18 years of potential life.

Even a fairly light drinking habit of 1.5 or less servings a day was found in 30% of cancer deaths linked to alcohol.

According to cancer and alcohol study author David Nelson, who directs the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the National Cancer Institute, alcohol's carcinogenic properties are hidden in plain view, but have received scant public attention.

Nelson said that while the study found "no safe level" of alcohol use, people who drank more were more at risk of developing various cancers.

Previous studies have shown that drinking in moderation can give a boost to heart health.

But Nelson said that, overall, alcohol probably causes around 10 times the number of deaths that it prevents.

The lowest-risk strategy when it came to preventing cancer was to drink no alcohol at all, but people could also cut their risk of cancer by reducing the amount they drank, he said.

For the purposes of the study, which was published in the online edition of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers collated data from various existing studies, including the 2009 Alcohol Epidemiologic Data System, the 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the 2009-2010 National Alcohol Survey.

Previous studies have shown drinking is a risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and, in women, breast cancer, although the way in which it is involved in the disease is still not clearly understood.

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