Primary care nurses can do much to help combat alcohol misuse and to provide support to patients and their families. Whether they are practice nurses, seeing patients in consultations, or community nurses, visiting patients in their own homes, two messages of fundamental importance apply.
These have been gleaned from personal experience and those of patients and specialist alcohol professionals whom we have met while researching two books about alcohol addition.
The importance of listening
The first message is never to underestimate the importance of simply listening to patients. Feedback from specialist nurses working in drug and alcohol units suggests that a lot of patients have drawn attention to their alcohol misuse to nurses and GPs only to find the issue is not explored. This may result from time restraints or because alcohol addiction isn't sufficiently prioritised.
Second, clinicians may underestimate the dangers of physically-addicted drinkers going 'cold turkey' and not acknowledge the difference between a psychological addiction and a physical addiction.
Patients with a psychological addiction to alcohol are unlikely to cause themselves significant harm by stopping drinking. If, however, they suffer withdrawal symptoms, then their addiction has progressed to a physical one, and stopping suddenly could cause memory loss, brain damage or even death.