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FAQs

What is at-risk drinking?  

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines at-risk alcohol use for healthy women as more than three drinks per occasion or more than seven drinks per week and any amount of drinking for women who are pregnant or attempting to become pregnant.

What is binge drinking?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when women drink over 3 drinks within a 2 hour period. Most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent. 
Although that many women protest that binge drinking a couple of times a year does not indicate they are an at-risk drinker, it is important for them to understand that, at the time they are intoxicated or recovering from drinking, they are as vulnerable to suffering from adverse consequences as habitual at-risk drinkers. 
Binge drinking is associated with many health problems, including:

  • Unintentional injuries (e.g., car crashes, falls, burns, drowning)
  • Intentional injuries (e.g., firearm injuries, sexual assault, domestic violence)
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Unintended pregnancy
  • Children born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
  • High blood pressure, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases
  • Poor control of diabetes

Binge drinking is also associated with social and legal problems, including: 

  • Poor job performance
  • Property destruction
  • Lack of appropriate parental response
  • Interpersonal relational breakdown and violence
  • Public disturbance

What is moderate drinking?

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking for women as up to one drink per day or a blood alcohol level above 0.055 grams percent. Even moderate drinking has health risks. Women who drink 3 to 7 drinks per week are at greater risk for developing breast cancer than women who have fewer than 3 drinks per week. 

Why is at-risk drinking a problem for non-pregnant women? 

Depending on the level of drinking, the overall health of the woman and her nutritional status, the risk for the following medical problems increases:

  • Unintended pregnancy
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Menstrual disorders
  • Altered fertility
  • Injuries
  • Seizures
  • Malnutrition and dietary disorders
  • Cardiomyopathies
  • Cancer of the breast, liver, rectum, mouth, throat and esophagus.

In addition women who drink at risk are vulnerable to the following psychosocial problems:

  • Depression and suicide
  • Sexual assault – Interpersonal violence
  • Loss of primary relationships
  • Loss of income
  • Loss of child custody
  • Driving under the influence
  • Altered judgment

Why is at-risk drinking a problem for pregnant women?

Even light alcohol use may affect a developing fetus throughout all stages of pregnancy.
Prenatal alcohol consumption exposes the fetus “to a wide variety of phenotypic alterations including prenatal growth retardation, microcephaly and a distinctive pattern of craniofacial Features” This would be known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. 

However, not all children exposed in utero to the same amount of alcohol will be similarly affected. The expression of alcohol effect on the fetus is dependent on:

  • Gestational timing
  • Genetic factors involving genes coding for alcohol metabolizing enzymes
  • Maternal age
  • Maternal nutrition and health status

Many of the fetotoxic effects of ethanol can be attributed to the metabolite, acetaldehyde – a highly reactive substance that may bind to proteins, DNA and other cellular constituents. Ethanol metabolism also increases other metabolites with differing pharmacologic characteristics, tissue distribution and time dependence on clearance. 

At present, biomarkers for embryotoxicity have not been determined. 

The effect of maternal alcohol consumption to the fetus often manifests itself later in the life of the child through specific deficits in learning ability and with behavioral issues resulting in legal problems. Learning difficulties include:

  • Inattentive and easily distracted which may be inconsistent from day to day
  • Overactivity or “busy”
  • Math and/or visual-spatial deficits
  • Uneven profile of cognitive skills
  • Difficulty completing tasks
  • Trouble with transitions
  • Poor organization and planning skills

Youth who have been exposed to ethanol in utero have an enhanced risk of the following which lead to legal issues:

  • Poor judgement
  • Impulsiveness
  • Poor social cognition
  • Vulnerability to being taken advantage of
  • Inability to anticipate consequences
  • An inability to alter behavior despite consequences

Why is there no threshold list for alcohol consumption during pregnancy?

A dose-response may be considered essential in establishing teratogenicity in animals, but is uncommonly demonstrated in sufficient data among humans. A threshold dose is the dosage below which the incidence of adverse effects is not statistically greater than that of controls. With most agents, a dose threshold for teratogenic effects has not been determined; however they are usually well below levels required to cause toxicity in adults. 


As prenatal alcohol use has been proven to affect the developing fetus through a variety of mechanisms to the endocrine, nervous, circulatory, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal systems; the determination of the amount and timing of alcohol use that would be considered absolutely safe during a pregnancy is not possible. 

I am not ready to work with alcoholics.

Fewer than 4% of the U.S. population are alcohol dependent or alcoholic and require medical treatment and intensive behavioral counseling for their alcohol use.  However, 25% of the population is considered to be at-risk alcohol users. The majority of those who binge drink are not alcohol dependent. Non-alcohol dependent drinkers will benefit most from brief straightforward education and support from their primary care provider.

I don’t think my talking about drinking is going to make a difference to the patient.

Patients are likely to be more receptive, open and ready to change than you expect. Most patients don’t object to being screened for alcohol use by clinicians and are open to hearing advice afterward. Primary care physicians are in an excellent position to initiate change in their patient’s drinking behavior. Clinical trials demonstrate that brief interventions can promote significant, lasting reductions in drinking levels in at-risk drinkers who are not alcohol dependent. 

Studies have shown that once advised by their physician, brief intervention and education for at-risk alcohol use is equally effective when delivered by a nurse or other mid-level professional specialist. In a report outlining patient intervention for alcohol use within 5 Managed care organizations, 60% of those patients receiving the intervention reduced their alcohol consumption by 1 or more drinks per week.
If the woman is pregnant, one study indicated that stopping drinking as the result of an educational intervention during the second trimester reduced some deficits in attention disorders observed in the 6 year old children of mothers who reported drinking during pregnancy. It has further been found that the effects of the brief intervention during pregnancy were significantly enhanced when a partner participated.

My patients expect me to spend my time with them discussing their reason for the appointment and not their alcohol use.

A discussion of the patient’s at risk alcohol use can be woven into your assessment of clinical issues and management options. For instance, binge drinking needs to be addressed in determining the most effective contraception method to prevent an alcohol exposed pregnancy; menstrual problems may be more intense due to alcohol use; and, because at risk alcohol use is a risk factor for breast cancer, discussing drinking during a clinical breast exam is appropriate.


Brief intervention for at-risk alcohol use is shown to be effective for individuals who are not aware that they are at-risk alcohol users, when their primary care visit is for a reason other than their alcohol use. 

I have a busy office.  How can fit in screening and intervention for at risk alcohol use? 

Would you spend an extra 5 minutes with 1 or 2 patients a day on an intervention that is effective?

  • preventing unwanted pregnancies (particularly an alcohol exposed pregnancy),
  • situations that increase risk of sexual assault,
  • decrease menstrual problems and breast cancer risk?

If you are not able to have the conversation, could it be done by a member of your professional staff?

The T-ACE screening questionnaire and questions on quantity and frequency of alcohol use can be incorporated into the general patient information and history questionnaire used by an office for patient intake and updates. Individuals tend to respond more openly to alcohol and drug use questions when embedded into an intake form rather than within a face to face interview. Screening need only be done for first time obstetric patients and women presenting for their annual GYN office visit. 

For pregnant women
Any alcohol use during pregnancy is considered at-risk use. You and your patient are likely prepared to have this discussion

For non-pregnant women
Considering that approximately 25% of the population of women of women of reproductive age drink at risk levels and the average provider sees less than 6 women per day for routine annual visits, there would likely be fewer than 2 women per day per provider who require any manner of intervention. 
The majority of women who drink at risk levels require:

  • Acknowledgement that their drinking is at-risk level
  • Personalized your concerned message on why their alcohol use is a problem for their reproductive health
  • Ask for feedback and assess readiness to change
  • Have her set a goal for next visit and ask if she needs help in meeting her goal
  • Give her some written information or a web site resource (see resources section)

This conversation will take less than the time it took to read this bullet and is proven to be acceptable by the patient and effective in promoting change. Women who respond that they need additional help will need to be referred to a social worker or treatment facility for further assessment.

Are you saying that most women will benefit from alcohol education?  Where can I get this information?

The Alcohol Department page contains a tool kit – Drinking and Reproductive Health Care. It contains a step by step guide for the provider and downloadable patient education hand outs to accommodate the needs of individual patients. ACOG also has an excellent patient education pamphlet – Alcohol and Women. Another excellent free resource is a pamphlet from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) entitled ReThinking Drinking.

What is a brief intervention? 

Clinical trials have demonstrated that brief interventions can promote significant, lasting reductions in drinking levels in at-risk drinkers who are not alcohol dependent. It involves a 4 step process of asking about alcohol use, expressing your concern and advising change, assisting in her identification of changes she can make, and arranging a follow-up interaction to assess her progress. One way to put this brief intervention into operation might be:

  • Acknowledgement that their drinking is at-risk level
  • Personalize your concerned message on why theiralcohol use is a problem for their reproductive health
  • Ask for feedback and assess readiness to change
  • Have her set a goal for next visit and ask if she needs help in meeting her goal
  • Give her some written information or a web site resource
  • Set her next appointment within a short timeframe.

What is motivational interviewing and how can I do this in a busy office?

Motivational interviewing is a directive, client-centered counseling style for eliciting behavior change by helping clients explore and resolve ambivalence". Initially, it was used to motivate patients who abused alcohol to modify their drinking behaviors. The goal of motivational interviewing is to "help patients identify and change behaviors that place them at risk of developing health problems or that may be preventing optimal management of a chronic condition." Recognizing the dynamics of an individual patient's readiness to change behavior is integral to this approach. The goal of using motivational interviewing is to help patients move through the stages of readiness for change in dealing with risky or unhealthy behavior. The ACOG Committee Opinion #423 Motivational Interviewing: A Tool for Behavior Change, January 2009 (Reaffirmed 2014) offers more information on this important tool.

 Where does information on contraception fit in?

A woman who drinks alcohol at risky levels may not always follow prescribed procedures for effective contraception. To prevent these women from having an unwanted and alcohol exposed pregnancy, it is incumbent for the OB/GYN provider to review contraception use with her at every visit to ensure that she has full contraceptive coverage every time she has sexual intercourse. This might include providing secondary, back up, or emergency contraception methods. For example, along with oral contraceptives, advise her to use condoms, which have the added benefit of reducing sexually transmitted infections. Often long acting reversible contraceptives such as the IUD or implant are the best contraceptive alternatives.

How do I follow up with her on subsequent visits?


On subsequent visits document her alcohol use and review the goals she discussed with you previously. Ask if she was able to meet and sustain her drinking goal?
If her answer is yes, reinforce and support continued adherence. Encourage her to return and rescreen annually. 

If she is unable to keep her goal, acknowledge that change is difficult, support any positive change and address barriers in reaching the goal. Consider renegotiating the goal and plan including considering a trial of abstinence. It may be easier for her to stop all together than to moderate her drinking. If she is unable to cut down or abstain, consider that she may have an alcohol dependence problem and consider her getting outside assistance from a treatment specialist, a mutual help group or an on-site social worker.

What do I do when my efforts aren’t helping?

Acknowledge that change is difficult, relate her drinking to problems she may be having, consider referral to an addiction specialist and/or mutual help group. Try to engage a significant person in her life. Address coexisting disorders both medical and psychiatric. 

How do I determine where to refer her for treatment?
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has an excellent treatment locator web site that may help to find an appropriate program within a short distance. Many outpatient centers and some inpatient centers have services that include children or child care. 
http://findtreatment.samhsa.gov

How is alcohol withdrawal managed?

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal usually start within a few hours of the last drink and include tremor, sweating, hypertension, tachycardia, restlessness and nausea.  Seizures may also occur. Alcohol withdrawal delirium sometimes follows. This begins 1 to 3 days after the last drink and may continue to 10 days. The delirium consists of disorientation, altered sleep-wake cycle and hallucinations. Withdrawal is managed with thiamine and benzodiazepines, sometimes with other drugs to address symptoms. Pregnant women and severe cases should be managed on an inpatient basis. Alcohol withdrawal is best managed in conjunction with a substance abuse treatment program.

I can smell the alcohol on her but she denies drinking – What should I say?

It is best to state your observation as a simple statement. Let the patient know that you are available to talk with her about it and to provide help if she wants it.  Then continue with the appointment. 


If she is obviously inebriated, do not continue the appointment but ask her to return when she is “feeling better and able to concentrate on your guidance.” 

What do I do if she refuses treatment?

There may be a number of reasons for not accepting treatment. She may not agree with your assessment of her problem drinking. She may believe that treatment is only for those who are "homeless, incurable drunks." Or she may greatly fear that any involvement with treatment could result in her loss of the custody of her children or her job. She may be concerned that family or neighbors will discover her alcohol problem. If you are able, explore her reasons for treatment refusal or ask a social worker or counselor to discuss treatment with her. Remind her that whatever her choice, she remains your patient and you want to follow up with her in the near future. 

Can I get reimbursed for the screening and intervention from insurance?

Many health plans will now pay for alcohol and substance use screening and brief intervention. These patient encounters must include both screening with a validated instrument, such as the T-ACE and counseling by a physician or other qualified health care professional of at least 15 minutes. CPT codes are as follows:

  • 99408: Alcohol and/or substance (other than tobacco) abuse structured screening (eg, AUDIT, DAST), and brief intervention (SBI) services; 15 to 30 minutes ***Do not report services of less than 15 minutes with 99408
  • 99409: Alcohol and/or substance (other than tobacco) abuse structured screening (eg, AUDIT, DAST), and brief intervention (SBI) services; greater than 30 minutes ***Do not report 99409 in conjunction with 99408. Use 99408 or 99409 only for initial screening and brief intervention

        Medicare G codes

  • G0396: Alcohol and/or substance (other than tobacco) abuse structured assessment (e.g., AUDIT, DAST), and brief intervention 15 to 30 minutes
  • G0397: Alcohol and/or substance (other than tobacco) abuse structured assessment (e.g., AUDIT, DAST), and intervention, greater than 30 minutes

        Medicaid H codes

  • H0049: Alcohol and/or drug screening
  • H0050: Alcohol and/or drug services, brief intervention, per 15 minutes

References

Marilyn L. Kwan, Ph.D., division of research, Kaiser Permanente, Oakland, Calif.; Paula Klein, M.D., medical oncologist and breast cancer specialist, Beth Israel Comprehensive Cancer Center, New York City; Aug. 30, 2010, Journal of Clinical Oncology, online

vanFaassen E, Niemela O. The biochemistry of prenatal alcohol exposure. Chapter in Hoffman JD, Ed. Pregnancy and Alcohol Consumption. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. New York, NY, 2011. Pgs 1-47.

IBID

Adapted from Bertrand j, Floyd RL, Weber MK, O’Connor M, Riley EP, Johnson KA, et al. Fetal Alcohol syndrome: Guidelines for Referral and Diagnosis. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2004.

Fast DK, Conry J, Loock CA. Identifying fetal alcohol syndrome among youth in the criminal justice system. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 1999;20:370-2

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of binge drinking and heavy drinking among adults in the United States, 1993-2009. Downloaded from http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/data-table.htm. Accessed on 12-20-11

Miller PM, Thomas SE, Mallin R. Patient attitudes towards self-report and biomarker alcohol screening by primary care physicians. Alcohol and Alcoholism. 2006;41:306-10.

Fleming MF, Mundt MP, French MT, Manwell LB,  Staauffacher EA, Barry KL. Brief physician advice for problem drinker: Long-term efficacy and cost-benefit analysis. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2002;26:36-43

Babor TF, Higgins-Biddle JC, Dauser D, Burleson JA, Zarkin GA, Bray J. Brief interventions for at-risk drinking: patient outcomes and cost-effectiveness in managed care organizations. Alcohol & Alcoholism. 2006;41:624-31

Brown RT, Coles CD, Smith IE, Platzman KA, Silverstein J, Erickson S, Falek A. Effects of prenatal alcohol exposure at school age. II. Attention and behavior. Neurotoxicol Teratol. 1991;13:369-76

Chang G, McNamara TK, Orav J, Koby D, Lavigne A, Ludman B, et al.  Brief intervention for prenatal alcohol use: a randomized trial. Obstet Gynecol. 2005;105:991-8

Moyer A, Finney JW, Swearingen CE, Vergun P. Brief interventions for alcohol problems: a meta-analytic review of controlled investigations in treatment-seeking an dnon-treatment-seeking populations. Addiction. 2001;97:279-92

Tourangeau R, Smith TW. Asking sensitive question: the impact of data collection mode, question format and question content. Public Opinion Quarterly. 1996;60:275-304

Flemming MF, Mundt MP, French MT, Manwell LB, Staauffacher EA, Barry KL. Brief physician advice for problem drinkers: long-term efficacy and cost-benefit analysis.  Alcohol Clin Exp Res 2002;26:36-43

Hettema J, Steele J, Miller WR. Motivational interviewing. Annu Rev Clin Psychol 2005;1:91-111.

Bundy C. Changing Behavior: using motivational interviewing techniques. J R Soc Med 2004;97(suppl 44):43-7.

Prochaska JO, DiClemente CC, Norcross JC. In search of how people change.  Applications to addictive behaviors. Am Psychol 1992;47:1102-14.

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