BACKGROUND: Professional organizations recommend screening and brief intervention for unhealthy alcohol use; however, brief intervention has established efficacy only for people without alcohol dependence. Whether many medical inpatients with unhealthy alcohol use have nondependent use, and thus might benefit from brief intervention, is unknown. OBJECTIVE: To determine the prevalence and spectrum of unhealthy alcohol use in medical inpatients. DESIGN: Interviews of medical inpatients (March 2001 to June 2003). SUBJECTS: Adult medical inpatients (5,813) in an urban teaching hospital. MEASUREMENTS: Proportion drinking risky amounts in the past month (defined by national standards); proportion drinking risky amounts with a current alcohol diagnosis (determined by diagnostic interview). RESULTS: Seventeen percent (986) were drinking risky amounts; 97% exceeded per occasion limits. Most scored 8 on the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, strongly correlating with alcohol diagnoses. Most of a subsample of subjects who drank risky amounts and received further evaluation had dependence (77%). CONCLUSIONS: Drinking risky amounts was common in medical inpatients. Most drinkers of risky amounts had dependence, not the broad spectrum of unhealthy alcohol use anticipated. Screening on a medicine service largely identifies patients with dependencea group for whom the efficacy of brief intervention (a recommended practice) is not well established.
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