What is the aim of this review?
We aimed to find out whether brief interventions with doctors and nurses in general practices or emergency care can reduce heavy drinking. We assessed the findings from 69 trials that involved a total of 33,642 participants; of these 34 studies (15,197 participants) provided data for the main analysis.
Brief interventions in primary care settings aim to reduce heavy drinking compared to people who received usual care or brief written information. Longer interventions probably make little or no difference to heavy drinking compared to brief intervention.
What was studied in the review?
One way to reduce heavy drinking may be for doctors and nurses to provide brief advice or brief counselling to targeted people who consult general practitioners or other primary health care providers. People seeking primary healthcare are routinely asked about their drinking behaviour because alcohol use can affect many health conditions.
Brief interventions typically include feedback on alcohol use and health-related harms, identification of high risk situations for heavy drinking, simple advice about how to cut down drinking, strategies that can increase motivation to change drinking behaviour, and the development of a personal plan to reduce drinking. Brief interventions are designed to be delivered in regular consultations, which are often 5 to 15 minutes with doctors and around 20 to 30 minutes with nurses. Although short in duration, brief interventions can be delivered in one to five sessions. We did not include digital interventions in this review.
The evidence is current to September 2017.
Funding sources were reported by 60 (87%) studies. Of these, 58 studies were funded by government institutes, research bodies or charitable foundations. One study was partly funded by a pharmaceutical company and a brewers association, another by a company developing diagnostic testing equipment. Nine studies did not report study funding sources.
What are the main results of the review?
We included 69 controlled trials conducted in many countries. Most studies were conducted in general practice and emergency care. Study participants received brief intervention or usual care or written information about alcohol (control group).
The amount of alcohol people drank each week was reported by 34 trials (15,197 participants) at one-year follow-up and showed that people who received the brief intervention drank less than control group participants (moderate-quality evidence). The reduction was around a pint of beer (475 mL) or a third of a bottle of wine (250 mL) less each week.
Longer counselling probably provided little additional benefit compared to brief intervention or no intervention.
One trial reported that the intervention adversely affected binge drinking for women, and two reported that no adverse effects resulted from receiving brief interventions. Most studies did not mention adverse effects.
Quality of the evidence
Findings may have been affected because participants and practitioners were often aware that brief interventions focused on alcohol. Furthermore, some participants could not be contacted at one-year follow-up to report drinking levels. Overall, evidence was assessed as mostly moderate-quality. This means the reported effect size and direction is likely to be close to the true effect of these interventions.