Background: Studies on alcohol abuse are frequently based on patients who meet minimum diagnostic criteria, thus ignoring patients with individual symptoms of harmful or hazardous use. Consequently, we are unable to characterize alcohol-abusing patients with sufficient clarity to effectively focus screening for primary prevention. Objective: To determine the prevalence of harmful and hazardous use of alcohol, assess screening instruments for detecting alcohol abuse or dependence, and assess the impact of alcohol use on other diagnoses treated in outpatient settings. Design: Survey (cross-sectional study). Setting: Hospital-based outpatient clinic. Participants: Three hundred randomly selected adults (aged 18 years and older). Main Outcome Measure: Diagnosis of alcohol abuse or dependence based on the Diagnostic Interview Schedule (DIS). Results: About 18% met DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition) criteria of abuse or dependence while almost 50% had at least one symptom of harmful or hazardous use. The T-ACE questionnaire, a modified version of the CAGE questionnaire, was the most effective screening instrument for both men and women. Selected diagnoses, personal characteristics such as family history of alcohol abuse, and self-reported patterns of alcohol use could identify patients likely to meet diagnostic criteria. Conclusions: Many symptoms of substance use disorders are not adequately addressed in outpatient practice. Little is known about how alcohol use in varying quantities affects health care utilization and treatment of conditions commonly seen in outpatient medicine. Consequently, we lack a full appreciation of the burden of disease borne by alcohol use and have yet to achieve a universally accepted method of approaching primary and secondary prevention of alcohol-related problems.
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