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Drinking Problems Means Practice Nurses on the Frontline

Published 18/07/2007

Practice nurses working in Britain's GP surgeries need to turn detective in the fight against drinking problems and alcoholism.

One in 13 people in the UK are alcohol-dependent. But when an alcoholic visits their local surgery, problem drinking is probably the last thing they are there to discuss.

In fact, they may not be aware they have a problem. If they are, they will go to great lengths to conceal it. Either way, an alcohol-dependent patient will typically present with other issues that they are more willing to discuss.

That makes alcoholics pretty hard to spot and most doctors receive only six hours training on alcohol addiction in the seven years it takes to qualify.

As a result, they regularly misdiagnose alcoholics as suffering from depression, sending them home with a prescription for anti-depressants that will only exacerbate the problem.

Since it is Practice Nurses that make up the frontline of primary healthcare services, they need to be on the lookout for symptoms that may indicate a drinking problem or alcohol problem.

These might include:

  • Injuries
  • Smell of alcohol on breath
  • Tremor of hands and tongue
  • Excessive capillarisation of the skin and eyes
  • Ascites (a build-up of fluid in the abdominal cavity)
  • Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal (such as sweating, nausea, severe agitation, confusion, paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations)

"If a Practice Nurse thinks they have identified someone with an drinking / alcohol problem at their practice, they should inform their GP colleague and, following discussion, agree on an appropriate treatment intervention." is the opinion of Sue Allchurch, a director of Lynwode Manor, the specialist residential alcoholism treatment centre.

They should also direct the patient to literature on the topic of alcoholism, which should be readily accessible in the practice building.

"It is important to help the patient to understand that their problem is not due to a lack of will power and it is a treatable condition." said Sue.

In order to assist them, Lynwode Manor and Mimosa Recovery has created a booklet that takes a no-nonsense approach to recognising drinking problems and treating alcoholics, written in conjunction with the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of General Practitioners.

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