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Detection of Acute Alcohol Intoxication and Chronic Alcohol Dependence by Trauma Center Staff

Gentilello, Larry M. MD; Villaveces, Andres MD; Ries, Richard R. MD; Nason, Katie S. MD; Daranciang, Elizabeth MPH; Donovan, Dennis M. PhD; Copass, Michael MD; Jurkovich, Gregory J. MD; Rivara, Frederick P. MD, MPH

The Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care: December 1999 - Volume 47 - Issue 6 - p 1131
Original Articles

Background: Trauma patients with acute alcohol intoxication or chronic alcohol dependence are at greater risk for morbidity and mortality. We hypothesized that relying on clinical suspicion to detect acute alcohol intoxication and chronic alcohol dependence in trauma patients is inaccurate, influenced by injury factors, and biased by race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status.

Methods: Trauma patients were screened with a blood alcohol concentration and with the Short Michigan Alcohol Screening Test and CAGE questionnaire. Before screening, physicians and emergency department nurses were asked whether the patient was acutely intoxicated (blood alcohol concentration > 100 mg/dL) or had a chronic alcohol problem. Sensitivity, specificity, positive, and negative predictive values were determined by comparing responses with blood alcohol concentration, Short Michigan Alcohol Screening Test, and CAGE questionnaire results, stratified by injury and demographic factors.

Results: Clinical evaluations were obtained on 462 patients. Overall, 23% of acutely intoxicated patients were not identified by physicians. The miss rate increased to one third in severely injured, chemically paralyzed, or intubated patients. Specificity was also poor. Patients with a negative blood alcohol concentration were more likely to be falsely suspected of intoxication if they were either young, male, perceived as disheveled, uninsured, or having a low income (p < 0.05). Staff identified < 50% of patients with a positive Short Michigan Alcohol Screening Test or CAGE, and falsely identified 26% of patients as alcoholic.

Conclusions: Formal alcohol screening should be routine because clinical detection of acute alcohol intoxication and dependence is inaccurate. Screening should also be routine to avoid discriminatory bias attributable to patient characteristics.

From the University of Washington School of Medicine, Departments of Surgery, Pediatrics, Psychiatry, Medicine, the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, and the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute

Address for reprints: Dr. Larry M. Gentilello, Harborview Medical Center, Department of Surgery, Box 359796, 325 Ninth Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104; email:

Supported by grant NIH/NIAAA RO1-AAO9045.

© 1999 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.