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Telephone counseling may help problem drinkers

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A few phone conversations with a counselor might help patients who abuse or who are dependent on alcohol cut back on their drinking, at least in the short term, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that after just six telephone sessions with a counselor, men and women with alcohol problems were able to reduce their drinking.

All of the study participants had their drinking problems identified through screening during a routine visit to the doctor's office. None had been seeking treatment for alcohol abuse.

The findings, say the study authors, suggest that screening and phone-based counseling might help people who otherwise wouldn't have their problem drinking addressed.

"The study shows that we shouldn't just give up on those alcohol-dependent patients who cannot or choose not to get treatment," lead study author Dr. Richard L. Brown said in a statement.

"If we can identify these folks in primary care waiting rooms and provide telephone counseling ... we can start to help many of these patients," he said.

Brown and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin in Madison report the findings in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The study involved nearly 900 adults with an alcohol disorder who were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The treatment group had telephone sessions with a counselor to talk about ways to cut back on alcohol; each call was followed by a letter from the counselor that summarized the conversation.

The comparison group received only a pamphlet on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which included information on alcohol.

After three months, patients in the counseling group were drinking less, the study found. The men had a statistically significant reduction in total alcohol consumption (17 percent) and in the number of "risky" drinking days (31 percent).

Women also reduced their drinking, but the changes were not statistically different from the reductions seen in the women in the comparison group. It's possible, according to Brown's team, that simply being screened for problem drinking spurred many women in the comparison group to cut back.

Experts have called for primary care doctors to routinely screen patients for alcohol abuse. These findings, according to Brown's team, suggest that when drinking problems are spotted, many patients might benefit from phone counseling.

"Getting patients to participate in the counseling sessions was actually much easier than we thought it would be," Brown said. "Once they had established rapport with that counselor over the phone, many patients really looked forward to their sessions."

The researchers are now studying whether the drinking improvements last for up to a year
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