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Nurses need support to address patient alcohol dependency

Nurses need help in diagnosing and assisting patients with alcohol dependency, according to an expert.

Speaking at the Nursing In Practice North East event, Dr Lynne Owens, nurse consultant at Alcohol Services Liverpool, highlighted the fact that only a small minority of  such patients are diagnosed.

“You will come across someone who is alcohol dependent almost everyday in your practice, whether you know it or not. In the UK, 6% of people are dependent, and only 6% of those people ever get treated,” she told the audience in Durham.

She suggests that nurses don't ask questions about alcohol because they often don't know what to do with the answer and are anxious about what advice to give, due to a lack of confidence/training and the fact it is such a confusing and emotive subject.

She recommended talking to patients using a motivational positive approach to help them identify risks, like you would with smoking. Owens said. “Getting your patient to agree about the risk can be challenging, but will have a great effect.”

Owens also urged nurses to talk to each other about how to effectively diagnose and treat alcohol dependency, and ideally offer patients “structured, ongoing social support that gives patients feedback can be recommended along with medicine and advice,” she said.

Awareness among both the profession and patients is also an issue. Owens suggested that as alcohol is water soluble and affects every cell in your body it can have a varied and wide-ranging detrimental effect on someone's health, therefore nurses should consider that all patients' problems could be an effect of alcohol dependency.

Getting patients to understand and accept the associated risks is also a problem as drinking after a stressful day makes them happy.

“You need to ask them 'how many drinks does it take for that mood enhancing effect to go?' You need them to think past that first satisfying drink. One of the main barriers that stop patients getting help is that 'treatment doesn't work' or they are 'not ready.' But why would you be ready to stop something you love that you think is enhancing your life?” she said.

Patients are often unaware of the link between alcohol and cancers (breast cancer in particularly), as well as strokes, depression and insomnia.

The symptoms of alcohol dependency are often very common symptoms too, such as problems sleeping, anxiety, low mood, constant tiredness, which Owens said also makes diagnosis problematic.

Other talks at the event included one on accurately diagnosing COPD, another on the annual health checks required for individuals with learning difficulties, as well as seminars on symptom control for dementia, and how to safeguard vulnerable adults.

Nursing in Practice offers a series of free events across the UK, specifically for nurses who wish to develop their knowledge and learn the latest updates and best clinical practice from expert speakers in the field. To learn more, or book a place click here