Study Supports Single-Question Alcohol Screening for Teens

A single screening question about drinking frequency in the past year could help doctors identify adolescents at risk for alcohol problems, according to a new study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). 

Conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, who collaborated with a network of rural primary care practitioners, the study also supports the use of the age-based screening thresholds put forward in NIAAA’s Alcohol Screening and Brief Intervention for Youth: A Practitioner’s Guide.

“Primary care physicians are encouraged to screen adolescents for alcohol problems, yet many do not, citing time constraints and other issues,” said NIAAA Director George Koob, PhD, in a news release.  “This study demonstrates that simple screening tools such as those in NIAAA’s Youth Guide are efficient and effective.”

Adolescents between 12 and 17 years old who reported drinking at least one standard drink on three or more days in the past year were most at risk for alcohol problems. Among those who drank at this level, 44 percent were found to have an alcohol use disorder, or AUD. Screening for AUD based on the 3-day guideline demonstrated 91 percent sensitivity — indicating that a youth with AUD was likely to be detected by the screen — and 93 percent specificity — meaning those without AUD were likely have a negative result. A negative screen (fewer than three drinking days in the past year) effectively ruled out AUD, with 99 percent not having the disorder.

For adolescents ages 18-20, the researchers found that the best screen for alcohol problems was to ask whether individuals had engaged in 12 or more drinking days (i.e., a day in which at least one standard drink is consumed) in the past year. Thirty-one percent of those who reported drinking at this level had AUD.   

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