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Texts from physicians can reduce unhealthy drinking by young adults

Doctors can use text messaging to help young adults reduce their alcohol intake, according to a new study.

University of Pittsburgh researchers found that heavy alcohol consumption by young adults decreased after they received weekly texts for three months that inquired about their drinking and offered tips to reduce how much they drank. The findings were published online Dec. 15 in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

"For a lot of these young adults, they're not aware that their drinking behavior is dangerous. Making them aware of it and allowing them to self-monitor what they are doing can change their behavior," said lead study author Brian Suffoletto, MD, an assistant professor of medicine in the Dept. of Emergency Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

Fifteen percent of the adult U.S. population reported binge drinking in a 30-day period, according to 2009 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The figure was 24% for youths ages 12 to 20. Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more alcoholic beverages in about two hours for women and five or more drinks for men, said the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Excessive alcohol use leads to about 79,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, the CDC said.

University of Pittsburgh researchers studied 45 adults ages 18 to 24 from three emergency departments in western Pennsylvania. The young adults were labeled hazardous drinkers based on their scores to the three-item screen Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test-Consumption. People who were too ill to participate and those seeking treatment for alcohol use were ineligible for the study.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Those in the assessment group received weekly text messages that asked for the number of days in the past week they drank alcohol and the maximum number of alcoholic beverages they consumed in a 24-hour period. The messages were delivered by a computer server, Dr. Suffoletto said.

Participants in the intervention group received the weekly texts and got feedback to their responses. Feedback included messages of support for weeks when alcohol was not consumed. During heavy-drinking weeks (five or more drinks for men in 24 hours and four or more beverages for women), the young adults were encouraged to set a daily drink limit for the next seven days.

Those in the third group got a weekly text reminding them to respond to an emailed survey at the end of the 12-week study period.

At the start of the study, researchers found no significant differences among participants' alcohol consumption patterns. More than half of the young adults drank at least twice a week, and 69% consumed at least three drinks on a typical occasion.

But after three months, adults in the intervention group reported having 3.4 fewer heavy drinking days in the last month compared with the start of the study. They also had 2.1 fewer drinks per day when they consumed alcoholic beverages.

Dr. Suffoletto attributed the improvement largely to the text message suggestions that participants in this group set goals to decrease their drinking.

He said unhealthy drinking behaviors also decreased in the two other groups, but the drop was not as significant as it was for those who received intervention texts. Discussing alcohol with patients

Madison, Wis., pediatrician Patricia Kokotailo, MD, MPH, said it often is challenging to discuss the negative health consequences of alcohol consumption with college-age youths, in part because drinking is so common among this population.

"What a lot of young kids consider normal college drinking isn't normal drinking," said Dr. Kokotailo, a professor of pediatrics and associate dean for faculty development and faculty affairs at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "This is an area where [physicians] could be doing a better job of working with older adolescents and young adults" to help stem the problem.

She considers text messaging an effective way for primary care physicians to educate teens on health issues, including those related to alcohol. But she said more research is needed on the impact of using text messages in this way before primary care doctors implement a texting program to address patients' unhealthy drinking habits.

The full and original article can be found at: http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2011/12/26/hlsb1227.htm

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