Health professionals are at the forefront of tackling the problem of alcohol misuse in our society. For many people, problem drinking may only be flagged up when they go to see their GP on another matter or attend A&E in a crisis.
It’s an ongoing project at the Medical Council on Alcohol to educate medical professionals about how to recognise when alcohol is affecting the health of patients and intervene successfully. One of the key things is to take the opportunities when they arise. For example, there are now many more alcohol specialist nurses in hospitals where they can pinpoint which people need ongoing help to overcome alcohol problems. Of course, the huge influx of people into A&E at certain times who are suffering from the effects of binge drinking does sometimes overwhelm this service and is a major problem in itself.
GPs and other primary care health professionals are also in a good position to ask patients about their drinking habits and there is a whole area of work on how they can effectively advise patients to stay within the safe limits for men and women.
There are other important opportunities to intervene. For example, we know that a proportion of pregnant women drink alcohol, sometimes to excess, and midwives are in an excellent position to recognise this and provide support and information to women who may not realise they are putting their own or their unborn baby’s health at risk. Midwives are thus able to act both on behalf of the women and their unborn babies. The situation is complicated though by the ongoing debate in the medical community about whether pregnant women should be counselled to avoid alcohol altogether or drink very small quantities.
At the MCA, we work to support the teaching of alcohol misuse as part of the curriculum for medical and nursing students. At the moment, its inclusion is inconsistent and variable. It might be covered in psychiatry in one medical school or under general practice in another for example. In fact, we don’t really know how much time is dedicated to this major public health issue because there is no overall standard or agreement. We think this is too important to leave to chance.
Historically, we have also helped medical professionals and students who may find that they have their own issues with alcohol misuse. We have links to medical schools around the country through a network of regional advisers and work with the Sick Doctors Trust and British Doctors and Dentists Group which offer confidential support to doctors and medical students affected by dependence on drugs or alcohol.
For more information about the work of the MCA, or for membership enquiries, go to www.m-c-a.org.uk