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Review: brief interventions reduce drinking in patients not seeking treatment
  1. Allan Graham, MD
  1. Kaiser Permanente Health Plan of Colorado, Denver, Colorado, USA

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 QUESTION: In people with alcohol problems, are brief interventions effective for reducing drinking?

    Data sources

    Studies were identified by searching {Medline, PsycINFO, Dissertation Abstracts, and the Alcohol and Alcohol Problems Science Database (from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism)}* and by scanning citations in relevant studies.

    Study selection

    Studies were selected if the intervention did not exceed 4 sessions and if > 1 group was evaluated (1 of which did not receive a brief intervention). Studies were excluded if they did not report results for alcohol-use disorders separately from other substance-use disorders or if the brief intervention aimed to discourage alcohol drinking in pregnant women.

    Data extraction

    Data were extracted on participants, intervention, and outcomes (including alcohol consumption [quantity and time], abstinence, and drinking without problems). Drinking related outcomes were aggregated, and effect sizes were calculated.

    Main results

    56 studies were included. 34 studies compared brief interventions with control conditions in people who were not seeking treatment; 79% of these studies excluded people with alcohol dependence, heavy drinking, or previous treatment for alcohol problems. A benefit in the aggregate outcome was seen for brief interventions at ≤ 3 months (4 studies), > 3 to 6 months (11 studies), and > 6 to 12 months (23 studies), but the effect was not statistically significant at > 12 months (5 studies) (table). 20 studies compared brief interventions with extended treatments in people who were seeking treatment, and 50% of these studies excluded people with alcohol dependence, heavy drinking, or previous treatment for alcohol problems. No difference in the aggregate outcome was seen between brief interventions and extended treatment at any time point (table).

    Composite of all drinking-related outcomes for brief interventions for reducing alcohol drinking


    In people with alcohol problems who are not seeking treatment, brief interventions are better than no intervention for reducing drinking. In people seeking treatment for alcohol problems, brief interventions do not differ from extended treatment for reducing drinking.


    Brief interventions have consistently been found effective for alcohol-use problems and at-risk drinking behaviours.1,2 However, application of these findings to primary care has been hampered by an absence of adequate cost-effectiveness data. The 2 studies by Moyer and Fleming et al add to our understanding of the treatment effects and costs.

    In their meta-analysis, Moyer et al take a conceptual step forward by grouping the brief intervention studies according to patient type: those who were opportunistically identified as having problem drinking behaviours and those who sought alcohol treatment. This distinction turned out to yield a clear difference in the size of the outcome effects seen in these 2 populations. The carefully done analyses and tables provide elegant and clear data on effect sizes and data homogeneity.

    In the analysis by Moyer et al of the studies concerning patients not seeking treatment, a small to moderate treatment effect was observed after ≤ 4 provider contacts; this effect was equivalent to a 10% to 20% increase in the number of patients achieving a favourable response. This effect seems worthy at first glance, but is it significant enough to warrant widespread implementation of the screening and intervention and commitment of new resources to augment existing health promotion activities? To address these concerns, relevant cost-effectiveness data are needed from multiple studies. Given the large number of competing care demands on primary care providers, we must prove that the rather modest 10% to 20% improvement rate translates into meaningful, clinical benefits.

    To this end, the study by Fleming et al provides some encouraging evidence that the cost-benefit ratio may justify the investment. The effectiveness of delivering the intervention in routine, daily practice seemed to save $4.30 for every $1 spent; however, the 95% CI of the cost-benefit ratio was wide, ranging from 0.6 to 8.0, and the p value was only 0.08. This favourable trend needs to be replicated in other large scale studies to be convincing.

    The cost of screening in the study by Fleming et al represented 50% of the expense. If the prevalence of problem drinking is lower in a different study population, the percentage of resources going towards screening and away from intervention will be increased. The incidence of at-risk drinkers was 14% in the study by Fleming et al but only 8% in a similar study by Senft et al3; consequently, the cost-benefit ratio should be lower and the project less attractive. In reality, the study by Senft et al failed to find any savings or outcome differences at 12 months.

    Brief interventions seem to be inexpensive and require little staff input. However, when applied broadly, they require daily, systematic staff effort, including the screening of many normal patients to identify each at-risk person (7:1 ratio in the study by Fleming et al). For a health maintenance organisation with 300 000 adult members, such as Kaiser Permanente of Colorado, an anticipated 42 000 members would qualify as problem drinkers, if the prevalence is 14%. Kaiser’s 250 primary care physicians would need to devote two 15 minute visits per patient to replicate Fleming’s intervention. If all members were to be screened within 4 years, it would take 1% of every physician’s time to do the intervention, cost roughly $10m ($166/patient, adjusted to 2002 dollars), and save perhaps $42m. Before implementing a project affecting so many physicians and members, complementary studies that replicate the positive findings by Fleming et al are needed.

    Finally, on a serendipitous note, the data suggest a unique opportunity to increase the cost-benefit ratio by including the savings from motor vehicle crash expenses in the calculations. An additional $7171 was probably saved for each $166 spent on brief interventions (95% CI $396 to $13 965). These potential savings may be of interest to auto insurers. Perhaps a unique collaboration could be created between auto and health insurance companies to finance brief intervention programmes for the mutual benefit of their subscribers. Is this a place where the rubber meets the road?



    • Source of funding: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

    • For correspondence: Dr A Moyer, SUNY Stony Brook, Stony Brook, New York, USA. anne.moyer{at}

    • Abstract and commentary also appear in Evidence-Based Mental Health.

    • * Information provided by author.