Difficult Conversations: How to Help an Alcoholic Patient

Updated on August 26, 2019
Difficult Conversations How to Help an Alcoholic Patient copy

Millions of adults and hundreds of thousands of youth struggle with alcohol disorders. If you think that your patient may be an alcoholic, you need to be careful about how you deal with this sensitive subject.

Learning how to help an alcoholic means learning how to speak with them and broach this subject. Many people that have problems with alcohol are in denial or don’t want help.

Continue reading this article to learn more about helping an alcoholic as well as what signs to look for to tell if your patient is an alcoholic.

The 411 on How to Help an Alcoholic

A patient getting multiple DWI penalties isn’t the only way to tell they have a drinking problem but it’s a good start. Here are some other things to look out for as well as some important guidelines.

Recommendations for Low-Risk Patients

Even low-risk patients need guidance. A major life event can set even the soberest person off, so making sure they have the necessary information to make the best decision is important.

To avoid alcohol disorders, men should drink no more than two drinks per day. Women should drink no more than one drink per day, and anyone over 65 should have no more than one drink per day.

What Is a Standard Drink?

Make sure your patient understands what a standard drink is. Having one bottle as a whole drink is not acceptable.

standard drink is:

  • 12 fl oz of regular beer
  • 8-9 fl oz of malt liquor
  • 5 fl oz of table wine
  • 1.5 fl oz of distilled spirits

When your patient has this information, there can’t be a misunderstanding about how much alcohol constitutes a standard drink.

When to Advise Patients Not to Drink

There are certain cases in which you should advise your patients not to drink at all.

The cases in which you should advise your patients not to drink are as follows:

  • During pregnancy or when nursing
  • When on certain medications that react to alcohol
  • If they are alcohol dependent
  • When they have a contraindicated medical condition

Under any of these circumstances, you should advise your patient that they should not drink alcohol. 

Asking Your Patients About Alcohol Use

Patients are usually used to getting asked about their alcohol consumption, but if they have a drinking problem, they may take offense.

If you suspect there may be a drinking problem, make sure to ask this question without judgment. And if they do answer they drink alcohol, ask them follow up questions about their consumption.

Ask them how many days per week they drink alcohol, how much they drink when they do drink, and what the most alcohol they’ve consumed in the last month in one given occasion was.

After getting the above information, you need to ask the CAGE questions.

The cage questions are:

  • Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
  • Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

If your patient gives you a positive response, find out if any of these things have happened in the past year.

If your patient is a man drinking fourteen drinks per week or four drinks per occasion or a woman drinking seven drinks per week or three drinks per occasion, they may be at risk for alcohol-related problems.

This is also true if they’ve experienced a situation related to one of the CAGE questions above.

When Can You Screen for Alcohol Problems?

Answer: if you’re giving a routine health exam, prescribing a new medication, or if they are displaying signs that could be related to alcohol.

When your patient screens positive for an alcohol-related problem, you have to do essential follow up. This follow up will allow you to determine whether the patient is at an increased risk for alcohol-related problems, experiencing these problems currently, or if they are alcohol dependent.

What to Look for In Your Patients

If your patient is drinking too much or have a history of personal or family alcohol-related problems, they may be at a higher risk for these problems.

Ask them about their drinking patterns and their family history to get a basic understanding.

If your patient gives positive responses to one or more of the CAGE questions and it has occurred within the past year, or if there are medical or behavioral problems, they may already be at the stage where they are experiencing alcohol-related problems.

Look for things like blackouts, sleep disorders, hypertension, and depression in their medical history for additional proof.

If your patient gives three or four positive responses to the CAGE questions about their experience in the past year, or if there is evidence they are compelled to drink, have impaired control, or have to drink to relieve withdrawal symptoms, they may already be alcohol dependent.

State Your Medical Concern

While friends and family may already be concerned about their drinking, you need to state your medical concern if there is a problem. Once you do this, you can recommend your plan of action.

Always remain nonconfrontational and empathetic for the best results.

Learn More – Be Better

Now that you know how to help an alcoholic patient, why stop there? As medical professionals, there are many situations to deal with on a day-to-day basis. The more prepared we are, the more we’re able to help those people that put their trust in us.

We have many articles that will help you as a healthcare professional. Browse our site, find your favorite section, drop a bookmark, and come back soon for more great reads.

The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.