Page last updated: Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Dentists discuss drinking habits with their patients
Addiction experts at The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) say the link between oral cancer and heavy drinking makes dentists ideal sources of alcohol intervention.

A study also found that most patients don’t mind discussing alcohol use with their dentist.

Peter M. Miller, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at MUSC commented that the results were suprising: “We thought alcohol was a sensitive topic. We thought people might feel it’s okay if their doctor talked to them [about alcohol use], but not their dentist.”

MUSC researchers collected information from 408 adults. All were treated at an emergency walk-in dental clinic during a four-month period in 2005. Patients were asked questions about their drinking habits and their thoughts about having their dentist discuss alcohol use with them.

About 80% of people in the study said that dentists should feel free to ask patients about their drinking habits. About 25 % said they would be embarrassed if their dentist asked such a question. However, 90% said they would give an honest answer.

More than 90% of the people in the study also agreed that if drinking were affecting their oral health, their dentist should advise them to reduce the amount they drink, or to quit.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimates that nearly 50% of cases of Oropharyngeal Cancer (OPC) are associated with heavy drinking.

Miller said most people are not aware that heavy drinking is linked with oral cancer risk and, therefore, might wonder why a dentist would ask about drinking habits. About 25% of the people in the study were drinking alcohol at levels that could be considered harmful, researchers said. These people were just as open to talking with their dentist about their drinking habits as people who drank less or no alcohol, the study found.

Miller said that the results of this study show that dentists should be trained in how to talk with patients about alcohol use. “We wouldn’t expect the dentist to do counselling - just provide information,” he said. “If someone looks like they have a problem, it’s a matter of referral to either an alcoholism or addiction treatment center, or a psychiatrist or psychologist.”

Source: December 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA)

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