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Dentists can help patients fighting alcoholism

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.

The study, which appeared in the December 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) also finds that most patients don't mind discussing alcohol use with their dentist.

“We thought alcohol was a sensitive topic, and that people might feel it's okay if their doctor talked to them about alcohol use, but not their dentist.” said Peter M Miller, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at MUSC.

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 per cent of people in the study said that dentists should feel free to ask patients about their drinking habits and 25 per cent said they would be embarrassed if their dentist asked such a question. However, 90 per cent said they would give an honest answer. More than 90 per cent 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 US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimates that nearly 50 per cent of cases of oropharyngeal cancer (OPC) are associated with heavy drinking. Miller said most people are not aware that heavy drinking is linked to oral cancer risk and, therefore, might wonder why a dentist would ask about drinking habits.

Professor Miller said that the results of the study showed 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 he has a problem, it's a matter of referral to either an alcoholism or addiction treatment centre, or a psychiatrist or psychologist.”

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Dentists can help patients fighting alcoholism. Br Dent J 202, 61 (2007).

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