Excessive drinking contributes significantly to social problems, physical and psychological illness, injury and death. Hidden effects include increased levels of violence, accidents and suicide. Most alcohol-related harm is caused by excessive drinkers whose consumption exceeds recommended drinking levels, not the drinkers with severe alcohol dependency problems. One way to reduce consumption levels in a community may be to provide a brief intervention in primary care over one to four sessions. This is provided by healthcare workers such as general physicians, nurses or psychologists. In general practice, patients are routinely asked about alcohol consumption during registration, general health checks and as part of health screening (using a questionnaire). They tend not to be seeking help for alcohol problems when presenting. The intervention they are offered includes feedback on alcohol use and harms, identification of high risk situations for drinking and coping strategies, increased motivation and the development of a personal plan to reduce drinking. It takes place within the time-frame of a standard consultation, 5 to 15 minutes for a general physician, longer for a nurse.
A total of 29 controlled trials from various countries were identified, in general practice (24 trials) or an emergency setting (five trials). Participants drank an average of 306 grams of alcohol (over 30 standard drinks) per week on entry to the trial. Over 7000 participants with a mean age of 43 years were randomised to receive a brief intervention or a control intervention, including assessment only. After one year or more, people who received the brief intervention drank less alcohol than people in the control group (average difference 38 grams/week, range 23 to 54 grams). For men (some 70% of participants), the benefit of brief intervention was a difference of 57 grams/week, range 25 to 89 grams (six trials). The benefit was not clear for women. The benefits of brief intervention were similar in the normal clinical setting and in research settings with greater resources. Longer counselling had little additional benefit.