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New bid to detect problem drinkers in Northern Ireland

Renewed efforts to detect problem drinkers admitted to hospital are being rolled out in Northern Ireland.

Doctors and nurses will ask patients about their alcohol intake to help detect those whose habits may be unknowingly putting them at risk of future heart disease and cancer as well as those approaching alcohol dependency and needing urgent counselling or care, the Public Health Agency (PHA) said.

Screening will be introduced for all admissions to acute hospitals over the next two years.

Alcohol may be a contributing factor in up to a quarter of all admissions to hospital and extra support services are being introduced to help those struggling.

PHA consultant in public health medicine Dr Stephen Bergin said: "Around a quarter of people are not dependant alcoholics by any means but even that moderate alcohol consumption seems to have a role in a lot of admissions to hospital with fractures, heart disease and cancers.

"If you have been weekly drinking for 10 years and come in with a stomach complaint you can see where alcohol may have contributed, it eventually catches up and leads to that presenting.

"Any amount of alcohol carries risk but clearly the more you drink the more at risk you are."

Belfast Health Trust's total of alcohol-related inpatient admissions to hospital for 2014/15 stands at 1,184. The Royal and Mater hospitals estimate around 5% (6,572) of emergency department attendances involved alcohol in one year.

Screening of patients involves a small number of simple questions asked by doctors and nurses about alcohol consumption. Based on the answers a further and more detailed survey may be triggered. That will use a scorecard of 1-20 to classify people as being at mild, moderate or serious risk.

The majority of those identified as needing further help will be at mild risk but much more medical research has been done on the harmful effects of what was previously thought to be benign intakes, Dr Bergin added.

Those at reduced risk will receive brief advice during a 5-15 minute discussion. Patients scoring closer to 20 may be approaching alcohol dependency.

Dr Bergin said: "They may be on the road to that and may need a more intensive approach or referral on to alcohol counselling service after discharge."

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