Short interventions that are effective for some drinking problems

For people who do not have serious drinking problems but sometimes drink at dangerous or abusive levels, brief interventions may be an effective way to allow them to restrain drinking and eliminate harmful drinking patterns.

However, the same brief intervention strategy seems to be ineffective for those with more severe alcohol use disorders.

What is a short-term intervention?

The brief intervention is a short-term, one-on-one consultation meeting designed to encourage people to eliminate harmful drinking behaviors such as alcohol abuse. Unlike traditional alcoholism treatments, which may take weeks or even months, brief interventions are usually one to four short courses.

In most cases, patients are provided with reading materials, such as brochures, manuals, or workbooks, which can reinforce the strategies outlined during the consultation. Counselors usually follow up with this person via email, mail, or phone to check their progress and provide further encouragement.

Interventions are usually carried out by professionals who have received specific training in alcohol or addiction counseling. Counselors are usually doctors, nurses, psychologists or social workers. In a university environment, well-trained peer counselors are also effective.

The goal of the short-term intervention

Traditional alcoholism treatment is aimed at people who have become alcohol dependent, with the goal of promoting complete abstinence. The goal of short-term intervention is to allow patients to reduce their drinking or change harmful drinking patterns.

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The goal of short-term intervention is to reduce the negative consequences of people drinking.

For example, it can be used to help pregnant women avoid harm to their unborn children. Interventions aim to reduce alcohol-related medical problems, injuries, domestic violence, car accidents, legal issues, and other negative consequences of excessive drinking.

Who should accept the brief intervention?

Anyone who occasionally drinks excessive or binge drinking may benefit from a brief intervention. Binge drinking is drinking five or more glasses of alcohol (four glasses for women) during a meeting.

Brief interventions are helpful to anyone who has an alcohol-related health problem, is pregnant, is injured in an alcohol-related accident, or is arrested for driving under the influence or other alcohol-related crimes.

Many times, through routine medical screening using standard alcohol screening tools, people who can benefit from short-term interventions can be identified. Sometimes they are determined through blood tests, which can reveal drinking or alcohol-related health problems.


Evidence for the effectiveness of short-term interventions is limited. Some researchers describe support for its effectiveness as weak or limited. Although positive results have been observed in a well-controlled laboratory environment, it is not clear whether these same results will be transferred to the real environment.

Research has shown that brief interventions are most effective when performed by patients who are considered to be authority figures, people they already trust, or people they already feel comfortable with.

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These interventions have been successful for both young and older patients, as well as men and women. Researchers report that interventions that include individual follow-up are more effective than single-contact interventions.

It may be effective for brief interventions in the “teaching moment” of drinkers, such as when they are receiving trauma care in the emergency room, or when they find that they are breaking the law.

A brief intervention on alcohol abuse can be provided in the following settings:

  • Primary care institutions: Although studies have shown that 20% of patients in primary care institutions have alcoholism, their probability of being diagnosed is less than 50%. Although 88% of primary care doctors asked their patients about alcohol consumption, only 13% used standard screening tests. However, interventions in primary care settings can be very effective. Sometimes, the family doctor simply saying “I am worried about your drinking” is enough to make patients reduce their drinking.
  • Emergency Department: Because 31% of emergency patients test positive for alcohol problems, and trauma treatment is a “teachable moment”, the emergency department provides an ideal opportunity to screen for alcohol problems and provide brief interventions. This is especially true for young people, who are more likely to seek treatment in the emergency room and are more likely to engage in dangerous drinking.
  • Prenatal setting: Preventing alcohol consumption during pregnancy is important to prevent possible birth defects. Brief interventions are very effective in obstetric settings, because pregnant women are usually motivated to change their behavior and usually only have mild to moderate drinking problems. These interventions are even more effective when their husband or partner participates with them.
  • Criminal justice system: Although breaking the law provides another “teachable moment” for people with alcohol problems, few studies have shown that short-term interventions are effective in these situations compared to traditional treatments. A study did show that brief interventions are effective for drunk drivers who also suffer from depression, but not for those without depression.
  • University environment: Up to 44% of college students drink alcohol, and universities certainly provide many opportunities for intervention. Short-term interventions have been shown to be effective in a university setting because the goal is to reduce alcohol consumption, not stop drinking altogether. Research shows that the problem is that the students who need the intervention the most are least likely to participate in the counseling.

For people with mild to moderate drinking problems, brief interventions may be useful and cost-effective, but for people with severe drinking problems or alcoholics, more extensive treatment is needed.