Which factors lead to misdiagnosis of alcohol-related problems?

Updated: Mar 23, 2020
  • Author: Warren Thompson, MD, FACP; Chief Editor: Glen L Xiong, MD  more...
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Although the dangers of alcoholism are well known, data suggest that physicians frequently fail to make the diagnosis. Less than 50% of people who went to their doctor because of alcohol-related issues were asked about the problem. Multiple studies on medical inpatients and surgical patients in university and community hospitals, as well as outpatients in internal medicine and family medicine practices, show a low recognition rate and an even poorer treatment rate. The following are possible reasons that alcohol-related problems are missed during diagnosis.

  • Patient factors contribute to the failure to diagnose alcohol problems. Patients frequently deny they have a problem. They might not link alcohol with its consequences. Patients may be unaware that a positive family history increases their risk for the disease. They might fear being reported to their employers. Patients might be too ashamed to report their problem.

  • Physicians frequently share the responsibility for the failure to diagnose alcoholism. Many physicians have a negative attitude toward persons with alcohol problems. They view these patients as demanding and feel that they waste society's resources.

  • Recognized substance abuse patients tend to have an antisocial personality disorder (type 2 alcoholism, characterized by an association with criminal behavior [sociopathy], onset in teen years, and drinking to get high), while those whose diagnosis is missed tend to have depression or anxiety. During residency training, physicians see a fair number of persons with type 2 alcoholism; these patients are often not truthful and have a poorer prognosis. This contributes to the belief among many physicians that alcoholism is not treatable, despite good evidence to the contrary (see Treatment). Also, physicians might hesitate to label a patient as alcoholic because of negative consequences. Physicians who have a problem with alcohol themselves are less likely to discuss alcoholism and its consequences with patients.

  • Physicians might not know how to screen for and diagnose alcoholism. However, screening for alcoholism is important (see CAGE questionnaire and AUDIT).

  • "How much do you drink?" is probably the question asked most commonly by doctors. This question has less than 50% sensitivity for alcohol problems. Blood tests, such as liver function tests and mean corpuscular volume, are not particularly effective; even the best test, gamma glutamyl transferase, has a sensitivity of only approximately 50%. Recently, sialic acid and carbohydrate-deficient transferrin levels have been touted as possible tests, but the sensitivities of both appear to be too low to be useful.

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