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Brief Counseling Helps Alcohol Abuse, Does Not Help Substance Abuse

Brief Counseling Helps Alcohol Abuse, Does Not Help Substance Abuse

Over the past decade the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has advocated for screening and brief interventions to address unhealthy alcohol and drug use.

Physician’s have been urged to screen for alcohol and substance abuse and to use office visits as an opportunity to refer abusers for brief counseling.

A new study finds that while the approach has proven successful with risky alcohol use, the intervention appears of little benefit for illicit drugs.

As published in JAMA, researchers discovered two commonly used brief counseling interventions did not reduce the continued use of marijuana, cocaine, or opioids — suggesting that clinicians should “look beyond screening and brief intervention, perhaps to lengthier and more complex . . . care management strategies.”

For the study, Dr. Richard Saitz, chairman of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health, tested the effectiveness of two interventions on 528 adult primary care patients with unhealthy drug use.

Participants were assigned to three groups: one that received a 10- to 15-minute structured interview conducted by health educators; a second that received a 30- to 45-minute intervention based on motivational interviewing, with a 20- to 30-minute follow-up session by counselors; and a third that received no brief intervention.

All study participants received a written list of substance-use disorder treatment and help resources.

At the beginning of the study, 63 percent of participants reported that their main drug was marijuana, 19 percent cocaine, and 17 percent opioids.

All participants reported they were more than casual users, meaning they used drugs at least weekly (or had less frequent use, but with reported consequences). Researchers assessed their drug use at six weeks and six months.

For the primary outcome (number of days of use of the self-identified main drug in the past 30 days), there were no significant differences between the groups. In addition to self-reporting, participants were subjected to hair testing for drugs.

There also were no significant, between-group differences at six weeks or six months in drug-use consequences, injection drug use, unsafe sex, or health care utilization.

Saitz said the findings raise questions about the federal government’s advocacy – through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — of screening and brief interventions to address unhealthy drug use.

“Brief counseling can work for a lot of things, but we found no evidence to support the widespread implementation of universal screening and brief intervention for illicit drug use or prescription drug misuse,” Saitz said.

“In retrospect, drug use is a complicated problem. While there might have been some hope that something as simple as this would work, it now appears it doesn’t.”

Saitz and co-authors speculated that screening and brief counseling might work better with unhealthy alcohol use than drugs because risky drinking is socially acceptable and not as complex to reduce.

“People who are using drugs and admit to using drugs are already doing something not socially sanctioned, so getting them to change their behavior may be harder,” Saitz said.

“Despite many reasons to not use, they are continuing to do so. A few minutes of counseling is not going to change that.”

“Because each drug is different,” he said, “a universal intervention is especially difficult. What works to address marijuana use may not work to stop heroin injecting, for example.”

Prescription drug misuse is particularly complex, as it may involve pain relief, as well as euphoria-seeking behavior or selling of prescribed drugs.

“One-time brief counseling is simply inadequate to address these complexities, even as an initial strategy,” Saitz said, adding that even with alcohol use, multiple interventions have been more successful than one-time sessions.

Saitz noted that while primary care physicians may inquire about patients’ drug use, most do not screen using optimal tests. He said the study findings should not suggest that screening doesn’t work to identify use — just that one brief intervention is insufficient to reduce it.

“Identifying drug use is important for reasons beyond aiming to reduce it; it is important to physicians in diagnosis of symptoms and for safe prescribing,” he added.

“The message is not that we don’t want to address drugs in medical settings — in fact, I believe we must, just as we address other risk factors and health conditions,” he said.

“Instead, the message is that this approach is inadequate. We’re going to need something more. As doctors, we’re going to have to take more responsibility for this problem, the same way we take responsibility for other factors that impact health.”

“Only 18 percent of the study participants had moderate to severe substance use disorders — representative of drug use in the typical primary-care clinic population,” Saitz said. “The rest, who were using drugs with fewer or no consequences, are people for whom effective early identification and intervention could be critical,” he said.

The researchers recommended that future trials focus on drug sub-groups (prescription drugs, for example), to gauge whether specialized interventions are effective.

They also suggested that trials be conducted using the primary care physician as the interventionist, or establishing a “multi-component” intervention of clinicians and electronic tools.

Source: Boston University

Client in counseling session photo by shutterstock.

Brief Counseling Helps Alcohol Abuse, Does Not Help Substance Abuse

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Brief Counseling Helps Alcohol Abuse, Does Not Help Substance Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 6 Aug 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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