Health Professionals

Alcohol and Drug Treatment:  A Guide for Health Professionals

Alcohol and drug treatment often begins at the front lines- the healthcare professionals who deal with a patient’s general healthcare concerns.  A patient may share his or her history of substance abuse with you during an intake meeting, or you may see unusual symptoms or signs of drug and alcohol abuse.  If a patient shares with you a history of substance abuse, it is important that you as a health professional ask questions to determine whether the patient is currently using, what substances the patient uses, and when/if the patient has sought treatment.  Use your judgment to determine the next course of action, from counseling and alcohol and drug treatment to sobriety monitoring.

Alcohol and Drug Treatment:  Initial Signs of Drug and Alcohol Abuse for Health Professionals

Signs of drug and alcohol abuse appear in various disciplines and parts of the human body.   Drug and alcohol abuse affects more than just the body’s internal organs; you may see differences in the patient’s teeth, skin and even on the tongue.  You as a health professional may be the first line of offense to help the person seek alcohol and drug treatment.  Obvious signs, such as puncture scars along the vein lines (needle tracks), a breath odor that smells of alcohol or drugs, or even physical intoxication in your presence are easy for you and your staff to identify.  Alcohol and drug treatment programs should address both the physical addiction as well as the emotional attachment.

Other signs of drug and alcohol abuse to look for include:

  • Significant tooth decay since previous visit
  • Discoloration of the skin, eye tissue or inside of the mouth
  • Increased bleeding (A diseased liver is unable to store adequate levels of vitamin K, reducing coagulation)
  • Recession of periodontal tissue in an otherwise healthy individual
  • Optic neuropathy
  • Unexplained bruising
  • Inexplicable chronic pain
  • Frequent migraines or headaches
  • Slowed reaction times
  • Significant changes in behavior or mood
  • A patient that regularly “loses” prescriptions

Even if you are not the patient’s primary care professional, you may be the only person in the medical field the patient will see, so it is important for you to take steps towards helping to find appropriate alcohol and drug treatment.  Unfortunately substance abuse clouds a person’s judgment and with the rise of prescription drug abuse across the country, it may be a good idea for you to implement the following procedures in your office:

  • Regular substance abuse and mental health screenings for at-risk populations (especially teens and seniors)
  • Extra precautions regarding the security of your prescription pads and drug samples
  • Publicly posting an office-wide policy regarding the refill of painkillers so that staff will not automatically call in a refill
  • Screen teen patients who seek urgent or emergency medical care for injuries from accidents or violent incidents

Alcohol and drug treatment requires specialized counseling and rehabilitation programs.  If you recognize the signs of drug and alcohol abuse but are unable to provide these services, refer your patient to a treatment center or facility with tailored, effective alcohol and drug treatment programs.