Friday, 13 January 2017

A prescription for tackling riskier drinking?

Guest post by John Mooney, Fuse associate and Senior Lecturer in Public Health, University of Sunderland.

In keeping with the ‘Dry-January’ season, John Mooney reflects on a current initiative to assess the feasibility of alcohol brief interventions in high street pharmacies…

“A man walks into a high street chemist – and asks for a paracetamol and an Alka-Seltzer…” could be the start of a very unpromising joke or sketch outline… Thankfully, it’s neither, as it more accurately depicts a very common scenario, which might represent the basis of a potentially effective setting (namely pharmacy / high street chemist shops) for health promotion messages around the health risks from alcohol misuse and / or overconsumption.

AUDIT score card collection box, with prize incentive to participate
Alcohol unit indicator diagram

Unsurprisingly perhaps, it is by now fairly well established that “alcohol brief interventions” (ABIs) - in which short well-validated questionnaires about habitual drinking patterns and consequences are linked to tailored advice and feedback - can be an effective intervention in primary care based consultations / GP practices as evidenced in the SIPS trial. Evidence for the effectiveness of such interventions however is less convincing in other settings, even those where, as in a GP consultation, health is the primary focus of the interaction. Pharmacy outlets for example might be considered an obvious parallel candidate ‘setting’ where, as in the scenario above, there may clearly have been an alcohol related context surrounding the primary reason for the person’s visit.

Indeed, in addition to over-the-counter ‘remedies’ which might be sought out after alcohol over-indulgence, there are a number of ‘indicator-prescriptions’ which could be suggestive of a more chronic / long-term damaging level of alcohol consumption (such as stomach acid suppressants or high blood pressure medications). High street chemists therefore, by virtue of their community embedded location, specialist knowledge and windows of opportunity for engagement, could theoretically present a very promising setting for ABIs. The lack of evidence of effectiveness in studies where this has been rigorously evaluated, has prompted questions as to why this might be the case. Investigators have speculated on the explanation being attributable to anything from the variable attitudes of pharmacy staff to the additional time and resource constraints associated with modern pharmacy practice. A recent Master of Pharmacy dissertation at the University of Sunderland(1) – which explored possible reasons in interviews with pharmacy staff, provided some local corroboration for these potential explanations. Interviews with participating pilot sites had also however noted the value of the awareness raising aspect of the process:

“Some patients had been drinking a bottle of wine a night and didn’t realise that it could contain 9-10 units and they were really shocked when they realised”

Other potential strengths of pharmacies as a setting for ABIs might be the now well established practice of providing support to pharmacies looking to embrace a wider health promotion role. As part of NHS England’s current ‘Promotion of Healthy Lifestyles’ programme, pharmacies are now required to participate in up to six health promotion campaigns per year(2). This generally involves the display and distribution of leaflets provided by NHS England or other collaborating institutions or stakeholders. As a result, there are usually highly visible and engaging ‘health promoting and awareness raising materials’ adorning the display areas of high street pharmacies and messages around alcohol health risks and reducing them are often a focus of such displays.

Given that the brief questionnaires and tailored advice of alcohol brief interventions is a more pro-active approach than the passive display of information, a current UK pilot feasibility study for pharmacies in several UK regions funded by Drinkaware UK, involves participants self-completing a score card that is the basis of most ABI interventions. Abbreviated as AUDIT, the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test, developed by the World Health Organisation(3), involves a series of questions about drinking habits and the extent to which drinking might have impacted on daily activities. Not quite ‘shock tactics’, the revelation of a score that flags up concern – can give respondents some cause for reflection – especially after the season of excess! Of course the score cards themselves have information on where respondents can seek further help and participating outlets receive training in responding to questions that might arise. Essentially the pilot aims to examine how best to integrate ABIs, as unobtrusively as possible into the day-to-day working of the pharmacy.

Not a programme lacking in ambition, the same score cards are also being distributed by trained advisors in selected participating supermarkets and other community settings across the UK, the evaluation of which is set to be complex and challenging. Ultimately the organisers hope to be able to make best practice recommendations about the most effective way to implement ABIs in pharmacies and other settings, where traditionally ‘hard to reach groups’ including working age men (a key high risk group for developing alcohol related health problems) can be more easily targeted.

AUDIT score cards with information leaflets
Indeed the current Drinkaware national campaign (‘Have a little less’) of which the above initiative is a part, will be run to coincide with 'Dry-January'. With a particular focus on working age men aged between 45-60, the message is that ‘Having a little less’ alcohol can have significant health benefits. This is in line with an emerging expert consensus around some of the potential drawbacks of an over-emphasis on one month of the year(4) and that it would be more beneficial for example to achieve three drinking free days for every week of the year. With long term trends in UK consumption still on the rise and a 44 per cent increase since 2009 in those aged 50 and over accessing alcohol treatment, all initiatives exploring innovative ways of getting the message across are to be welcomed. Don’t be too surprised therefore if you are asked about alcohol consumption the next time you collect a prescription!

Note: The Sunderland University Team who are evaluating the Drinkaware community ABI pilot comprises: Prof Jonathan Ling, Mr John Mooney (PI), Dr Zeibeda Sattar and Dr Nicola Hall. Please address any correspondence to

  1. Asghar S. Assessing the Feasibility and Practicality of delivering Alcohol Brief Interventions in Pharmacy Settings. MPharm Dissertation, University of Sunderland 2015/16.
  2. PSNC page on promoting healthy lifestyles: 
  3. PHE Guide to WHO AUDIT: 
Photography by Eileen Robinson Art ©

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