Should doctors screen for underage drinking?

Binge drinking continues to be a growing problem amongst Australian teens. Alcohol abuse at a young age can lead to serious physical, psychological and social consequences down the road. The early detection of a drinking problem is vital in order to protect children’s health and wellbeing.

Of course, parents can (and should) play their role in preventing underage drinking, as well as schools and police, but what about others who regularly come into contact with young people, such as health care professionals? Is it time for them to play a more significant role in detecting alcohol abuse in children and teens?

In the USA, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse Alcoholism (NIAAA) has suggested that doctors are in a prime position to screen youths for underage drinking. They argue that physicians should ask about alcohol consumption as a matter of course.

The NIAAA’s arguments are backed up by a recent study, which revealed that young people were more likely to seek treatment for issues with drinking when their physician had asked them about their alcohol consumption. It suggests that nobody is in a better position than a doctor to give impartial advice and information about the physical and psychological effects of alcohol abuse.

We all know that teenagers can view parents, police and other authority figures with a degree of scepticism. But doctors and other health care professionals represent more neutral figures – after all, it’s not their job to give moral judgements and they have no emotional connection to the child. Hearing about how alcohol can cause cirrhosis of the liver, addiction or even an early death could prove to be just the jolt that some young people need.

A visit to the doctor is confidential, so it’s highly likely that some youths will feel more comfortable being honest with healthcare professionals about their drinking, compared to teachers or youth workers. It could very well be the first step to getting proper support, so they can avoid the pitfalls that we often associate with underage drinking.

What do you think: should Australian doctors screen for underage drinking?