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Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies for Substance Abuse. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 1999. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 34.)

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Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies for Substance Abuse.

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Chapter 2—Brief Interventions in Substance Abuse Treatment

Brief interventions for substance abuse problems have been used for many years by alcohol and drug counselors, social workers, psychologists, physicians, and nurses, and by social service agencies, hospital emergency departments, court-ordered educational groups, and vocational rehabilitation programs. Primary care providers find many brief intervention techniques effective in addressing the substance abuse issues of clients who are unable or unwilling to access specialty care. Examples of brief interventions include asking clients to try nonuse to see if they can stop on their own, encouraging interventions directed toward attending a self-help group (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous [AA] or Narcotics Anonymous [NA]), and engaging in brief, structured, time-limited efforts to help pregnant clients stop using.

Brief interventions are research-proven procedures for working with individuals with at-risk use and less severe abuse behaviors and can be successful when transported into specialist treatment settings and performed by alcohol and drug counselors. As presented in the literature, brief interventions to change substance abuse behaviors can involve a variety of approaches, ranging from unstructured counseling and feedback to formal structured therapy (Chick et al., 1985; Fleming et al., 1997; Kristenson et al., 1983; Persson and Magnusson, 1989). Brief interventions, as defined and discussed in this TIP are time limited, structured, and directed toward a specific goal. They follow a specific plan (and in some cases a workbook) and have timelines for the adoption of specific behaviors.

Several studies have attempted to identify factors that result in differential responses to brief intervention by varying client characteristics or by conducting subgroup analyses. Most studies of brief interventions to date are limited by their lack of sufficient subject assessments. Findings from the available research suggest that client characteristics are not good predictors of a person's response to a brief intervention and that brief interventions may be applicable to individuals from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds (Babor, 1994; Babor and Grant, 1991).

This chapter provides theoretical and practical information on brief interventions, both in opportunistic settings and in the substance abuse treatment setting. The stages-of-change model is presented first because of its usefulness in understanding the process of behavioral change. Next, the goals of brief intervention are described and applied to various levels of substance use. FRAMES elements critical to brief intervention are detailed, and five essential steps are listed with scripts to use in various settings. The brief intervention workbook, a practical tool for use during a brief intervention, is explained. Essential clinician knowledge and skills for conducting a successful brief intervention are then described. Discussions of the use of brief intervention in substance abuse programs and nonspecialized settings follow. The final section presents research findings on brief interventions for both at-risk users and dependent users.

Stages-of-Change Model

The work of Prochaska and DiClemente and their "stages-of-change" model help clinicians tailor brief interventions to clients' needs (Prochaska and DiClemente, 1984, 1986). Prochaska and DiClemente examined several theories concerning how change occurs and applied their findings to substance abuse behavior modification. They devised a model consisting of five stages of change that seemed to best represent the process people go through when thinking about, beginning, and trying to maintain new behavior (see Figure 2-1 ). The stages-of-change model is explained more fully in TIP 35, Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT, 1999c).

Figure 2-1: The Stages of Change.


Figure 2-1: The Stages of Change.

These stages have proven useful, for example, in predicting those most likely to quit smoking and in targeting specific kinds of interventions to smokers in different stages (DiClemente et al., 1991; Prochaska, 1999; Prochaska and DiClemente, 1986; Velicer et al., 1992). Stages of change are being examined in brief interventions with hazardous and harmful substance users as well, as a means of tailoring interventions to the individual's current stage of change (Hodgson and Rollnick, 1992; Mudd et al., 1995).

Clients need motivational support appropriate to their stage of change. If the clinician does not use strategies appropriate to the stage the client is in, treatment resistance or noncompliance could result. To consider change, clients at the precontemplation stage must have their awareness raised. To resolve their ambivalence, clients in the contemplation stage must be helped to choose positive change over their current circumstances. Clients in the preparation stage need help in identifying potential change strategies and choosing the most appropriate ones. Clients in the action stage need help to carry out and comply with the change strategies.

The clinician can use brief interventions to motivate particular behavioral changes at each stage of this process. For example, in the contemplation stage, a brief intervention could help the client weigh the costs and benefits of change. In the preparation stage, a similar brief intervention could address the costs and benefits of various change strategies (e.g., self-change, brief treatment, intensive treatment, self-help group attendance). In the action stage, brief interventions can help maintain motivation to continue on the course of change by reinforcing personal decisions made at earlier stages.

Understanding these stages helps the clinician to be patient, to accept the client's current position, to avoid "getting too far ahead" of the client and thereby provoking resistance, and, most important, to apply the correct counseling strategy for each stage of readiness. Effective brief interventionists quickly assess the client's stage of readiness, plan a corresponding strategy to assist her in progressing to the next stage, and implement that strategy without succumbing to distraction. Indeed, clinician distraction can be a greater obstacle to change in brief intervention than time limitations. Regardless of the stage of readiness, brief interventions can help initiate change, continue it, accelerate it, and prevent the client from regressing to previous behaviors.

Goals of Brief Intervention

The basic goal for a client in any substance abuse treatment setting is to reduce the risk of harm from continued use of substances. The greatest degree of harm reduction would obviously result from abstinence, however, the specific goal for each individual client is determined by his consumption pattern, the consequences of his use, and the setting in which the brief intervention is delivered. Focusing on intermediate goals allows for more immediate successes in the intervention and treatment process, whatever the long-term goals are. In specialized treatment, intermediate goals might include quitting one substance, decreasing frequency of use, attending the next meeting, or doing the next homework assignment. Immediate successes are important to keep the client motivated.

Setting goals for clients is particularly useful in centers that specialize in substance abuse treatment. Performing brief interventions in this setting requires the ability to simplify and reduce a client's treatment plan to smaller, measurable outcomes, often expressed as "objectives" in the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations' (JCAHO) language of treatment planning. The clinician must be aware of the many everyday circumstances in which clients with substance abuse disorders face ambivalence during the course of treatment.

The key to a successful brief intervention is to extract a single, measurable behavioral change from the broad process of recovery that will allow the client to experience a small, incremental success. Clients who succeed at making small changes generally return for more successes.

The clinician should temporarily set aside the final goal (e.g., accepting responsibility for one's own recovery) to focus on a single behavioral objective. Once this objective is established, a brief intervention can be used to reach it. Objectives vary according to the client's stage of recovery and readiness to change, but brief interventions can be useful at any stage of recovery. Figure 2-2 presents several objectives that might be addressed with a brief intervention.

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Figure 2-2: Sample Objectives. Learning to schedule and prioritize time Expanding a sober support system Socializing with recovering people or learning to have fun without substance abuse Beginning skills exploration or training if unemployed Attending (more...)

The following are suggested goals for brief interventions according to the client's level of consumption.


Even though abstainers do not require intervention, they can be educated about substance use with the aim of preventing a substance abuse disorder. Such prevention education programs are particularly important for youth.

Light or Moderate User

The goal of a brief intervention with someone who is a light or moderate user is to educate her about guidelines for low-risk use and potential problems of increased use. Even light or moderate use of some substances can result in health problems or, in the case of illicit substances, legal problems. These users may also engage in binge drinking (i.e., five or more drinks in a single occasion). Clients who drink should be encouraged to stay within empirically established guidelines for low-risk drinking (no more than 14 drinks per week or 4 per occasion for men and no more than 7 drinks per week or 3 per occasion for women [American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), 1994]).

Brief interventions can enhance users' insight into existing or possible consequences or draw attention to the dangers associated with the establishment of an abusive pattern of substance use. For example, a woman who drinks moderately and is pregnant or who is contemplating a pregnancy can be advised to abstain from alcohol in order to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome. Brief interventions can also educate clients about the nature and dangers of substance abuse and possible warning signs of dependency. Older adults who take certain medications and use alcohol, even at this level, may be at risk for problems due to the interaction of medications and alcohol. See TIP 26, Substance Abuse Among Older Adults (CSAT, 1998b), for guidelines on alcohol use in older adulthood.

At-Risk User

This group includes those whose use is above recommended guidelines for alcohol use (as described above) or whose use puts them at risk for problems related to their consumption or at risk for meeting the criteria for a substance abuse disorder (e.g., people who may be able to report the requisite number of symptoms of a substance abuse disorder may not have three or more symptoms within a 12-month period). Brief interventions with this group address the level of use, encourage moderation or abstinence, and educate about the consequences of risky behavior and the risks associated with increased use. Brief interventions can help users understand the biological and social consequences of their substance use.


These are clients with a substance abuse disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV) (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1994). The goal of intervention with this population, depending on the clinician's theoretical perspective and the substances used, is to prevent any increase in the use of substances, to facilitate introspection about the consequences of risky behavior, to encourage the client to consider assessment or treatment, and to encourage moderation or abstinence.

There is mixed evidence on whether persons who meet criteria for substance abuse can successfully reduce their use to meet lower-risk guidelines or if abstinence is the only reasonable goal. (See "Research Findings" later in this chapter for a discussion of this issue.) Both research and clinical experience have produced varying results regarding this issue. From a clinical standpoint, however, some clients who meet abuse criteria may not achieve abstinence but might benefit from a positive, nonjudgmental approach to change their behavior over time. For example, after working with a clinician to monitor problems associated with the substance abuse, a client might agree not to drive after using substances or might consider quitting.

Goals of brief interventions with hazardous drinkers who are not alcohol dependent have been flexible, allowing the individual to choose drinking in moderation or abstinence. In such cases, the goal of the intervention is to motivate the problem drinker to change his behavior, not to assign blame. Helping clients to recognize the need for change is an essential step in this process.

Substance-Dependent User

Intervention at this level of use may focus on encouraging users to consider treatment, to contemplate abstinence, or to return to treatment after a relapse. The goal of intervention for dependent users is to recommend the optimal behavior change and level of care. In reality, however, the clinician may be able to negotiate a change the client is willing to accept and work over time toward abstinence. For example, if a client resists committing to prolonged abstinence, the provider could negotiate a limited period ending with a "checkup," at which time the client might consider extending abstinence further.

It should be noted that some substance-dependent clients may be in a life-threatening stage in their addiction or risk serious consequences such as losing their jobs, going to jail, or losing their families. For these clients, brief interventions should be linked to a referral strategy in which the goal is a therapeutic alliance between the client and the referral treatment team. Brief intervention in this context is more like "case management," in which the primary care provider tracks the client's progress with other service providers and determines if the client needs any additional services.

ASAM Criteria

Under ASAM criteria (see Figure 2-3 ), brief interventions are aimed at the nondependent user, at level 0.5 or possibly level I. Individuals at level II may be appropriate for a brief intervention if relapse potential and recovery environment are major problems for those with relatively minor physiological and psychological substance problems and high motivation to change. ASAM criteria have been extremely useful for clinical management of persons with substance abuse disorders who require more care than is needed for at-risk drinkers. Brief interventions, whether directed at reducing at-risk use (often used in primary care settings) or assisting in specific aspects of the treatment process, can be helpful for clients at every ASAM level and in many treatment settings.

Figure 2-3: American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) Patient Placement Criteria.


Figure 2-3: American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) Patient Placement Criteria.

Components of Brief Interventions

There is tremendous diversity in the process of recovery from a substance abuse disorder. Clients make changes for different reasons, and an intervention that works well for one client may not work for another. Brief interventions are components of the journey toward recovery and can be integral steps in the process. For some clients, assistance with the decision to make the change will be enough to motivate them to start changing the behavior, whereas others may need more intensive clinical involvement throughout the change process. Brief interventions can be tailored to different populations, and many options are available to augment interventions and treatments, such as AA, NA, and medications. It should be noted, however, that brief interventions are not a substitute for specialized care for clients with a high level of dependency. They can be used to engage clients in specific aspects of treatment programs, such as attending group and AA or NA meetings. Brief interventions can also help potential clients move toward seeking treatment and can serve as a temporary measure for clients on waiting lists for treatment programs. Even clinicians who advocate abstinence as a goal can use brief interventions as tools to help clients reach that goal.

There are six elements critical to a brief intervention to change substance abuse behavior (Miller and Sanchez, 1994). The acronym FRAMES was coined to summarize these active ingredients, which are shown in Figure 2-4 . The FRAMES components have been combined in different ways and tested in diverse settings and cultural contexts.

Figure 2-4: FRAMES.


Figure 2-4: FRAMES.

A brief intervention consists of five basic steps that incorporate FRAMES and remain consistent regardless of the number of sessions or the length of the intervention:

  1. Introducing the issue in the context of the client's health
  2. Screening, evaluating, and assessing
  3. Providing feedback
  4. Talking about change and setting goals
  5. Summarizing and reaching closure

Providers may not have to use all five of these components in every session. It is more important to use the components that reflect the needs of the client and her personal style. Before eliminating steps in the brief intervention process, however, there should be a well-defined reason for doing so. Moreover, a vital part of the intervention process is monitoring to determine how the patient is progressing after the initial intervention has been completed. Monitoring allows the clinician and client to determine gains and challenges and to redirect the longer term plan when necessary.

Following are descriptions of the five basic steps. Sample scenarios are provided where brief interventions might be initiated, with practical information about that particular step. For each step, Figure 2-5 presents scripts for brief interventions that clinicians can use in substance abuse treatment units or other settings where interventions might occur. (For examples focused on at-risk drinkers, see TIP 24, A Guide to Substance Abuse Services for Primary Care Clinicians [CSAT, 1997]. For detailed descriptions of more techniques, see TIP 35, Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Abuse Treatment [CSAT, 1999c]).

Figure 2-5: Scripts for Brief Intervention.


Figure 2-5: Scripts for Brief Intervention.

Introducing the Issue

In this step, the clinician seeks to build rapport with the client, define the purpose of the session, gain permission from the client to proceed, and help the client understand the reason for the intervention.

Counseling tips: Help the client understand the focus of the interview. State the target topic clearly and stress confidentiality; be nonjudgmental and avoid labels. Do not skip this opening; without it, the success of the next steps could be jeopardized.

Screening, Evaluating, And Assessing

In general, this is a process of gaining information on the targeted problem; it varies in length from a single question to several hours of assessment on the targeted topic of change. It could involve a structured or nonstructured interview or a combination of both, coupled with questionnaires or standardized instruments, with the extent of the process determined largely by the setting, time, and available resources. A sample screening guideline for alcoholism is provided in Figure 2-6 . Additional information about and examples of screening and assessment instruments can be found in the following TIPS: TIP 9, Assessment and Treatment of Patients With Coexisting Mental Illness and Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse; TIP 10, Assessment and Treatment of Cocaine-Abusing Methadone-Maintained Patients; TIP 11, Simple Screening Instruments for Outreach for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Infectious Diseases; TIP 24, A Guide to Substance Abuse Services for Primary Care Clinicians; and TIP 31, Screening and Assessing Adolescents for Substance Use Disorders (CSAT, 1994b, 1994c, 1994d, 1997, 1999a).

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Figure 2-6: Screening for Brief Interventions for Alcoholism. Screen At each visit, ask about alcohol use How many drinks per week? Maximum drinks per occasion in past month? Use CAGE questions to probe for alcohol problems Have you ever tried to (more...)

Counseling tips: Before you begin the brief intervention, decide how much information you have time to obtain and whether you want to have the client answer any questionnaires. Watch for defensiveness or other resistance, and avoid pushing too hard.

Providing Feedback

This component highlights certain aspects of the client's behavior using information gathered during screening. It involves an interactive dialog for discussing the assessment findings; it is not just clinician driven. Feedback should be given in small amounts. First, the clinician gives a specific piece of feedback, then asks for a response from the client. Sometimes the feedback is a brief, single sentence; at other times it could last an hour or more. Figure 2-7 provides an example of giving feedback.

Figure 2-7: Client Feedback and Plan of Action.


Figure 2-7: Client Feedback and Plan of Action.

Counseling tips: Use active listening (see "Active listening" later in this chapter). Be aware of cultural, language, and literacy issues. Be nonjudgmental.

Talking About Change And Setting Goals

Talking about change involves talking about the possibility of changing behavior. It is used with clients in all stages of change, but it differs profoundly depending on the stage the client has reached. For example, in precontemplation, clients are helped to recognize and change their view of consequences; in contemplation, they are helped to resolve ambivalence about change. In action, the focus is on planning, removing barriers, and avoiding risky situations; in maintenance, the emphasis is on establishing new long-term behaviors. It is important that the clinician assess the client's readiness to change if it is not already known. (See Figure 2-8 for examples of discussing change with a client who is trying to stop using cocaine but wants to continue to drink alcohol.)

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Figure 2-8: Talking About Change at Different Stages. In this example, a client who has come to treatment to stop using cocaine has her alcohol use brought to her attention. At each stage of readiness, the counselor might use a different strategy. Following (more...)

In talking about change, the clinician often suggests a course of action, then negotiates with the client to determine exactly what he is willing to do. Sometimes, talking about change is premature (i.e., before the assessment and feedback have happened). In that case, it should be postponed until later in the intervention.

Counseling tips: Offer change options that match client's readiness for change. Be realistic: Recommend the ideal change, but accept less if the client is resistant.

Summarizing and Reaching Closure

This step involves a summary of the discussion and a review of the agreed-upon changes.

If no agreement was reached, review the positive action the client took during the session. At this point, it is important to schedule a followup visit to talk about how the client is progressing. The followup could be another face-to-face meeting, a telephone call, or even a voice mail message. The goals of closing on good terms are to arrange another session, to leave the client feeling successful, and to instill confidence that will enable the client to follow through on what was agreed upon

Counseling tips: Tailor your closure to the client and the particular circumstance of this brief intervention; interpret any client resistance in a positive light leading to progress. Thus, if a client has been unwilling to commit to changes, thank her for her willingness to consider the issues and express the hope that she will continue to consider committing to changes.

Brief Intervention Workbooks

Brief intervention protocols often involve using a workbook that is based on the steps listed below. A workbook provides the client and clinician with opportunities to discuss the client's cues for using substances, reasons for using substances, and reasons for cutting down or quitting. It also usually provides a substance abuse agreement in the form of a prescription and substance abuse diary cards for self-reporting. These techniques, which often target reduction in substance abuse rather than abstinence, are similar to homework techniques used in substance abuse treatment programs. A sample of a workbook used to address drinking problems is provided in Appendix D. The steps in the workbook follow a script and may focus on the following:

  • Identification of future goals for health, activities, hobbies, relationships, and financial stability
  • Customized feedback on screening questions relating to substance abuse patterns and other health habits (also may include smoking, nutrition, etc.)
  • Discussion of where the client's substance abuse patterns fit into the population norms for his age group
  • Identification of the pros and cons of substance abuse--this is particularly important because the clinician must understand the role of substance abuse in the context of the client's life (given the opportunity to discuss the positive aspects of her substance abuse, the client may talk about her concerns honestly instead of feeling she should say what she thinks the clinician wants to hear; this builds a better working relationship)
  • Consequences of continued substance use to encourage the client to decrease or stop abusing substances and avoid longer term effects of continued substance abuse
  • Reasons to cut down or quit using (maintaining family, work, independence, and physical health all may be important motivators)
  • Sensible use limits and strategies for cutting down or quitting--useful strategies include developing social opportunities that do not involve abusing substances and becoming reacquainted with hobbies and interests
  • A substance abuse agreement--agreed-upon use limits (or abstinence) signed by the client and the clinician--can often be an effective way to alter use patterns
  • Coping with risky situations (e.g., socializing with substance users, isolation, boredom, and negative family interactions)
  • Summary of the session

Essential Knowledge and Skills for Brief Interventions

Providing effective brief interventions requires knowledge, skills, and abilities. Studies have shown that applying the clinician's skills listed below produces good outcomes, including getting clients to enter treatment, work harder in treatment, stay longer in treatment, and have better outcomes after treatment such as higher participation in aftercare and better sobriety rates (Brown and Miller, 1993; Miller et al., 1993).

  • Overall attitude of understanding and acceptance
  • Counseling skills such as active listening and helping clients explore and resolve ambivalence
  • A focus on intermediate goals (see discussion earlier in this chapter)
  • Working knowledge of the stages-of-change model (see discussion earlier in this chapter)

Attitude of Understanding And Acceptance

Clinicians must assure their clients that they will listen carefully and make every effort to understand the client's point of view during a brief intervention. Brief interventions are by definition time limited, which increases the difficulty of adopting such an attitude. However, when clients experience this nonjudgmental, respectful interest and understanding from the clinician, they feel safe to openly discuss their ambivalence about change--rather than resist pressure from the clinician to change before they are ready to do so. The sooner they address their ambivalence, the sooner they progress toward lasting change (see also TIP 35, Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Abuse Treatment [CSAT, 1999c]).

When clients feel they are being pushed toward change--even if the clinician is not pushing--they are likely to resist. Clients must summon all of their attention and strength to resolve their ambivalence, and resisting the clinician may cause them to lose track and argue against change. If the client and clinician begin arguing or debating, the clinician should immediately shift to a new strategy, otherwise the brief intervention will fail. In other words, resistance is a signal for the clinician to change strategies and defuse the resistance.

Counseling Skills

Active listening

One of the most important skills for brief interventionists is "active listening" (see Figure 2-9 ). Active listening is the ability to accurately restate the content, feeling, and meaning of the client's statements. This is also called "reflective listening," "reflecting," or sometimes "paraphrasing." Active listening is one of the most direct ways to rapidly form a therapeutic alliance. When done well, it is a powerful technique for understanding and facilitating change in clients. Active listening goes beyond nonverbal listening skills or responses such as, "Hmmm," "Uh-huh," "I see," "I hear you," or "I understand where you're coming from." None of these short statements demonstrates that the clinician understands. Counselors should also ask open-ended questions to which the client must respond with a statement, rather than a simple yes or no. Instead of summarizing a situation and then asking, "Is this correct?" ask the client, "What do you think? How do you feel about the situation?" Open-ended questions are invitations to share and provide a means to probe for important information that emerges in the interview.

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Figure 2-9: Steps in Active Listening. Listen to what the client says. Form a reflective statement. To reflect your understanding, repeat in your own words what the client said. Test the accuracy of your reflective statement. Watch, listen, and/or (more...)

Exploring and resolving ambivalence

Another important skill is the ability to help clients explore and resolve ambivalence. Ambivalence is the hallmark of a person in the contemplation stage of readiness. It is one of the most prevalent clinical challenges encountered in brief interventions. Whether it takes 1 minute or 40 minutes, the goal is to help clients become more aware of their position and the discomfort that accompanies their ambivalence. Increasing awareness of this discomfort within an understanding and supporting relationship can inspire the client to progress to a stage of preparation or action. For example, a client might be willing to go to counseling but not an AA meeting; in that case, the clinician should work with the client's motivation and focus on the positive step the client is willing to make.

One way to help a client recognize his ambivalence is to ask him to identify the benefits and costs of the targeted behavior (e.g., using alcohol) and the benefits and costs of changing the behavior. The clinician listens and summarizes these benefits and costs, then asks the client if any of them is more important than the others. This helps identify values that are important to the client and can therefore increase or decrease the chance of changing. Clinicians might also ask if any of the pros and cons is more or less accurate than others. This provides an opportunity for irrational thoughts to be refuted, which can help remove barriers to change (see example in the text box below).

Another approach to raising awareness of ambivalence is to explore the client's experience of feeling caught between opposing desires. For more specific techniques for resolving ambivalence, see TIP 35, Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT, 1999c).

Brief Interventions in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs

Substance abuse treatment programs frequently use brief interventions, although they might not be called by that name. Brief interventions can be effectively integrated into more comprehensive treatment plans for clients with substance abuse disorders. These approaches can be particularly useful in treatment settings when they are used to address specific targeted client behaviors and issues in the treatment process that can be difficult to change using standard treatment approaches. Brief interventions can be used with clients before, during, and after substance abuse treatment.

To integrate the use of brief interventions into specialized treatment, counselors and providers should be trained to provide this service. The Consensus Panel recommends that agencies consider allocating counselor training time and resources to these modalities. The Panel anticipates that brief interventions will help agencies meet the increasing demands of the managed care industry and fill the gaps that have been left in client care. It is also extremely important for substance abuse treatment personnel to collaborate with primary care providers, employee assistance program (EAP) personnel, wellness clinic staff, and other community-based service providers in developing plans that include both brief interventions and more intensive care to help keep the client focused on treatment and recovery. The following is a list of the potential benefits of using brief interventions in substance abuse treatment settings:

  • Reduce no-show rates for the start of treatment
  • Reduce dropout rates after the first session of treatment
  • Increase treatment engagement after intake assessment
  • Increase compliance for doing homework
  • Increase group participation
  • Address noncompliance with treatment rules (e.g., smoking in undesignated places, unauthorized visits, or phone calls)
  • Reduce aggression and violence (e.g., verbal hostility toward staff and other clients)
  • Reduce isolation from other clients
  • Reduce no-show rates for continuing care
  • Increase mutual-help group attendance
  • Obtain a sponsor, if involved with a 12-Step program
  • Increase compliance with psychotropic medication therapies
  • Increase compliance with outpatient mental health referrals
  • Serve as interim intervention for clients on treatment program waiting lists

Removing a Barrier to Change

Your client, Mary, is hospitalized because of an alcohol-related injury. You conduct a brief intervention in the hospital. During the session, she says that one of the good things about her drinking is that she "always had fun when she was drinking." In that case, you can ask her what her perspective is on the situation and whether she sees a connection between her drinking and her current behavior. This could lead to her challenging one of her reasons for drinking. By systematically exploring the reasons for and against drinking, you can help her tip the scale in favor of change.

Brief Interventions Outside Substance Abuse Treatment Settings

Brief interventions are commonly administered in nonsubstance abuse treatment settings, often referred to as opportunistic settings, where clients are not seeking help for a substance abuse disorder but have come to receive medical treatment, to meet with an EAP counselor, or to respond to a court summons (see Figure 2-10 for a list of health care and other professionals who often conduct brief substance use interventions). These settings and many others provide a multitude of opportunities to help people change their substance abuse patterns. It is unrealistic and unnecessary for providers in opportunistic settings to avoid working with people with a range of substance abuse problems including substance abuse disorders and merely to refer them for specialty care (Miller et al., 1994). Many clients do not use alcohol, for example, at a level that requires specialized treatment. Others who use at moderate or severe levels may be unwilling or unable to participate in specialized, mainstream substance abuse treatment programs. Moreover, some individuals may attach a stigma to attending treatment versus general health care services. Older adults and women often do not seek or engage in treatment because of stigma.

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Figure 2-10: Professionals Outside of Substance Abuse Treatment Who Can Administer Brief Interventions. Primary care physicians Substance abuse treatment providers Emergency department staff members Nurses Social workers Health educators Lawyers Mental (more...)

An individual's level of substance use is detected through screening instruments, medical tests (e.g., urine testing), observation, or simply asking about consumption patterns. Those considered to have risky or excessive patterns of substance abuse or related problems can receive a brief intervention that rarely requires more than several sessions, each lasting only 5 minutes to 1 hour (average = 15 minutes).

The goal of a brief intervention is to raise the recipient's awareness of the association between the expressed problem and substance abuse and to recommend change, either by natural, client-directed means or by seeking additional substance abuse treatment. Because the recipient usually does not expect to have a substance abuse problem identified, he may or may not be motivated to apply any recommendations. The brief intervention is highly structured and focuses on delivering a message about the individual's substance abuse and advice to reduce or stop it. If the initial intervention does not result in substantial improvement, the professional may refer the individual for additional specialized substance abuse treatment.

Treatment providers who work in settings other than substance abuse treatment must be flexible when assessing, planning, and carrying out brief interventions. For example, they will likely encounter more risky drinkers than alcohol-dependent individuals (in the United States there are four times as many risky drinkers as dependent drinkers [Mangione et al., 1999]). Some research indicates that the potential for brief interventions to reduce the harm, problems, and costs associated with moderate to heavy alcohol use by risky drinkers significantly surpasses the effectiveness from applications of brief interventions on substance-dependent individuals (Higgins-Biddle et al., 1997). Other research on brief interventions, as presented below, highlights some of the more rigorous studies with positive outcomes. The costs of alcohol abuse to society, as interpreted by health care costs, lost productivity, and criminal activity, are enormous, and brief interventions are a cost-effective technique to address such abuse. Typically these brief interventions act as an early intervention before or close to the development of alcohol-related problems and primarily entail instructional and motivational components addressing drinking behavior. In substance abuse treatment, brief interventions are used to assist in the treatment engagement process and to deal with specific individual, family, or treatment-related issues.

When delivering a brief intervention in any treatment setting, the provider should be mindful of room conditions and interruptions because client confidentiality is of utmost importance. Federal law requires that chart notes or other records on substance abuse be kept apart from the rest of the client's main chart. For example, if a medical client in a primary care clinic is also seen by an alcohol and drug counselor for treatment of a substance abuse disorder, those medical records are strictly protected by Federal law and may not be put in the client's chart. (For more information on these Federal laws, see TIP 24, A Guide to Substance Abuse Services for Primary Care Clinicians [CSAT, 1997].)

Heather makes an important distinction between brief interventions that are delivered in opportunistic settings where patients are not directly seeking help for a substance abuse disorder and those conducted in treatment environments where patients are seeking the help of specialists (Heather, 1995). Brief interventions conducted in opportunistic settings tend to be shorter, rely less on theory and more on an existing clinician-client relationship, and are less expensive because they are offered as part of an existing service.

Conducting Brief Interventions With Older Adults

Older adults present unique challenges in applying brief intervention strategies for reducing alcohol consumption. The level of drinking necessary to be considered risky behavior is lower than for younger individuals (Chermack et al., 1996). Intervention strategies should be nonconfrontational and supportive due to increased shame and guilt experienced by many older problem drinkers. As a result, older adult problem drinkers find it particularly difficult to identify their own risky drinking. In addition, chronic medical conditions may make it more difficult for clinicians to recognize the role of alcohol in decreased functioning and quality of life. These issues present barriers to conducting effective brief interventions for this vulnerable population. For more on this topic, refer to TIP 26, Substance Abuse Among Older Adults (CSAT, 1998b).

Research Findings

Brief interventions for substance abuse have been implemented since the 1960s. The literature in this area includes theoretical articles, clinical case studies and recommendations, quasi-experimental studies, and randomized controlled experimental research trials. Many of the brief intervention clinical trials have been conducted in the United States and Europe since the early 1980s, and most have focused on alcohol use. There is some experimental research on brief interventions for drug use but very little has been published to date. This is an area of ongoing and future work.

Reviews of Brief Intervention Studies

A 1995 review article (Kahan et al., 1995) sorted through 43 relevant articles found in MEDLINE published from 1966 to 1985 and 112 in EMBASE published from 1972 to 1994. Another, more recent review (Wilk et al., 1997) culled nearly 6,000 articles from MEDLINE and PsychLIT searches from 1966 to 1995 to find 99 that met criteria for closer inspection. A total of 11 of the articles found by Kahan and colleagues and 12 of those reviewed by Wilk and associates had control groups, adequate sample sizes, and specified criteria for brief interventions.

The most recent reviews of brief intervention studies concluded that brief interventions have merit, especially for carefully selected clients and can be applied successfully in several settings for different purposes (Bien et al., 1993; Kahan et al., 1995; Mattick and Jarvis, 1994; Wilk et al., 1997). The review by Bien and colleagues was one of the first to categorize brief interventions and evaluate their effectiveness according to the stated goals and settings in which they were conducted. After examining 12 controlled studies of strategies to improve clients' acceptance of referrals for additional specialist treatment or return to the clinic for additional treatment following an initial visit, Bien and colleagues concluded that relatively simple strategies and specific aspects of counselors' styles can increase rates of followthrough on referrals as well as improve initial engagement and participation in treatment (Bien et al., 1993). Only one unsuccessful trial of referral procedures is described, and the failure is attributed to the fact that all subjects had previously failed to respond to brief advice about getting into treatment for alcoholism.

Bien and colleagues also examined 11 well-conducted trials of brief interventions for excessive drinkers identified in health care settings (including the large-scale, 10-nation World Health Organization [WHO] study) (Bien et al., 1993). They found that eight of the studies showed significant reductions in alcohol consumption levels and/or associated problems for the subjects receiving brief, drinking-focused interventions in comparison with those receiving no counseling. Three other studies found no significant differences between experimental and control groups at followup, although drinking levels and other problem measures were reduced in both groups. Bien and colleagues concluded that it is better for health care providers in opportunistic settings such as primary care to intervene in a nonjudgmental motivational format than it is to provide no intervention to patients who did not expect to have their drinking patterns evaluated.

In addition, these authors also reviewed 13 randomized clinical trials comparing brief interventions to a range of more extensive therapies in specialized alcohol treatment settings and found that shorter counseling was, with remarkable consistency, comparable in impact to more traditional approaches in yielding specified outcomes (Bien et al., 1993). Only two studies reported an advantage of more extensive treatment over brief interventions on some outcome measures. They concluded that no evidence supports the inferiority of brief interventions in comparison with more extensive treatment offered by treatment specialists to patients who are seeking help for their alcohol-related problems. Heather argues, however, that the findings do not support the statement that the effectiveness of brief interventions is equal to that of other studied treatments for alcohol abuse (Heather, 1995).

Finally, Bien and colleagues concluded from an analysis of three other studies that brief interventions enhanced the motivation of treatment-seeking problem drinkers to enter and remain in outpatient or residential alcohol treatment compared with clients not receiving such attention (Bien et al., 1993).

Although other reviewers of brief interventions have reported more qualified reactions, all seem to agree that strong research evidence supports the use of brief interventions for heavy or excessive, nondependent drinkers, particularly those identified in general medical practice settings (Heather, 1995; Kahan et al., 1995; Mattick and Jarvis, 1994; Wilk et al., 1997). Wilk and colleagues examined evidence from 12 controlled clinical trials that randomized nearly 4,000 heavy drinkers to brief intervention or no intervention (Wilk et al., 1997). They concluded that heavy drinkers who received interventions in a primary care setting were almost twice as likely to moderate drinking than those who did not receive an intervention. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has also presented data on the efficacy and uses of brief interventions for dependent drinkers (NIAAA, 1999).

This TIP reviews the most methodologically sound brief intervention studies and discusses methodological limitations of previous and current research in this area. The research is presented in two sections: (1) brief interventions for at-risk and problem use and (2) brief interventions for substance abuse.

Brief Interventions for At-Risk And Problem Use

A study conducted in 1983 focused on males in Malmo, Sweden, in the late 1970s (Kristenson et al., 1983). The subjects, advised to reduce their alcohol use in a series of health education visits, subsequently demonstrated significant reductions in gamma-glutamyl transferase levels and health care utilization up to 5 years after the brief interventions. The Medical Research Council (MRC) trial, conducted in 47 general practitioners' offices in Great Britain (Wallace et al., 1988), found significant reductions in alcohol use by the intervention group compared to the control group 12 months following the intervention.

Anderson and Scott identified men and women from eight general practices in England who consumed more than 15 standard drinks (for men) or 9 standard drinks (for women) of alcohol per week (Anderson and Scott, 1992). These individuals were randomly assigned to receive either no intervention or feedback about the findings from the screening and 10 minutes of advice from the physician to reduce their consumption levels, accompanied by a pamphlet of self-help information. After 1 year, the males in the advice group had significantly reduced their mean weekly alcohol consumption by 2.8 ounces more than those who received no intervention. The females in both groups, however, showed significant reductions in alcohol consumption at the same followup point, with no between-group differences.

In a widely publicized evaluation of brief interventions conducted in health care settings in 10 nations sponsored by WHO, the investigators identified 1,490 nonalcoholic heavy drinkers from eight core sites through a 20-minute health interview (Babor and Grant, 1991; Babor et al., 1994). These participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: (1) no further intervention, (2) 5 minutes of simple advice about the importance of sensible drinking or abstinence, (3) simple advice plus 15 minutes of brief counseling and a self-help manual that encouraged the development of a habit-breaking-plan, or (4) at five of the sites, extended supportive counseling delivered in three extra sessions following the initial advice and 15-minute session. After 9 months, males who received any intervention, including the 5 minutes of advice, reported approximately 25 percent less daily alcohol consumption--a greater change than was observed in the no-intervention control group. Significantly, the men who showed the greatest response to simple advice had more severe alcohol problems and higher consumption patterns.

Another interesting finding from the WHO study was that female participants in all groups had reduced their drinking at 9 months, regardless of whether they received any intervention. One explanation may be that the female participants were only recruited from two relatively affluent countries--Australia and the United States--thus, the results cannot be generalized to all women (Sanchez-Craig, 1994). Furthermore, the 20-minute comprehensive assessment was sufficiently intensive that some women may have responded to implicit messages of cutting down on consumption without further overt advice, especially considering that only 10 minutes of simple advice or 15 minutes of counseling were additionally provided (Kristenson and Osterling, 1994).

One successful study demonstrated the efficacy of a brief alcohol intervention in a community-based primary care setting (Fleming et al., 1997). Project TrEAT (Trial for Early Alcohol Treatment) identified 723 men and women as problem drinkers from 17,695 patients who were screened in 17 community-based primary care practices. The outcomes studied were reductions in alcohol consumption and health resource utilization. In comparison with a no-intervention control group, the patients who received two 10- to 15-minute sessions of scripted advice (using a workbook that focused on advice, education, and contracting information) showed significantly greater reductions in alcohol consumption at a 12-month followup based on drinking levels during the previous week, episodes of binge drinking over the past month, and frequency of excessive drinking in the previous 7 days. Males in the study also had significantly fewer days of hospitalization than counterparts in the control group. Females in the experimental groups reduced their consumption significantly more than males in the experimental group. This research group (Fleming et al., 1999) also conducted a similar trial with primary care patients over 65 and found significant differences in drinking after 12 months for the experimental group compared to the control group.

Miller and colleagues have developed a special form of a brief intervention known as the Drinker's Check-Up (Miller and Sovereign, 1989), designed to evaluate whether alcohol is harming an individual in any way. In the 1989 study, participants were recruited through media advertisements and were asked to come into a neutral setting for the assessment. As reported by Bien and colleagues, several trials of this approach have demonstrated encouraging results from providing systematic feedback about assessment results and some self-help options (Bien et al., 1993). Compared with a no-intervention group of respondents who had to wait 6 weeks for assessment, the recipients of immediate feedback and brief, empathic assistance showed prompt and persistent reductions (of 29 to 57 percent) in consumption patterns. More empathic counseling, an important component of brief interventions (see discussion on FRAMES earlier in this chapter), is also associated with larger reductions than the use of the more traditional confrontational styles (Miller et al., 1993).

While the types of brief interventions vary, the basic design of most studies is a randomized controlled trial that assigns clients with hazardous drinking patterns either to a brief intervention (ranging from one to ten sessions) or to one or more control conditions (Anderson and Scott, 1992; Babor, 1992; Babor and Grant, 1991; Chick et al., 1985; Fleming et al., 1997; Harris and Miller, 1990; Heather et al., 1987; Kristenson et al., 1983; Persson and Magnusson, 1989; Wallace et al., 1988). Overall, the majority of brief alcohol intervention studies have found significantly greater improvements in drinking outcomes for the experimental group compared to the control group; however, most also found significant changes in drinking over time for both the control and brief intervention conditions. Meta-analyses found an effect size of 20 to 30 percent in studies conducted in health care settings (Bien et al., 1993; Kahan, 1985). Trials conducted since 1995 have garnered similar effect sizes with one trial finding a greater effect size for women (35 percent) (Fleming et al., 1997). Women were not always included in earlier trials, but later trials that did include women found that they were more likely than men to decrease their drinking based on brief targeted advice.

Because of the success of brief alcohol interventions with adults in opportunistic settings, new trials with special populations (e.g., older adults, injured patients in emergency departments, pregnant women) are now being proposed and conducted. In addition, new technologies are being studied, including computerized real-time tailored booklets for at-risk drinkers, and the use of Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) for interventions and followup. These and other technologies, if efficacious and effective, will provide clinicians with new tools to assist them in working with a difficult and important clinical and public health issue.

Brief Interventions for Dependent Use

Most studies of brief interventions for alcohol use that had the goal of changing drinking behavior have included only subjects who did not meet criteria for alcohol dependence and explicitly excluded dependent drinkers with significant withdrawal symptoms. The rationale for this practice was that alcohol-dependent individuals or those affected most severely by alcohol should be referred to formal specialized alcoholism treatment programs because their conditions are not likely to be affected by low intensity interventions (Babor et al, 1986; Institute of Medicine [IOM], 1990). However, there have been positive trials that address this issue specifically.

NIAAA reviewed the studies focused on alcohol-dependent drinkers (NIAAA, 1999). Some of these studies focused on the effectiveness of motivating alcohol-dependent patients to enter specialized alcohol treatment. As long ago as 1962, a nonrandomized study was conducted of alcohol-dependent patients, identified in the emergency department (Chafetz et al., 1962). Of those receiving brief counseling, 65 percent followed through in keeping a subsequent appointment in a specialized alcohol treatment setting. Only 5 percent in the control group followed through with an appointment.

Brief interventions have also been compared to more intensive and extensive treatment approaches used in traditional treatment settings with positive results (Edwards et al., 1977; Project MATCH Research Group, 1997, 1998). In a small study, the effectiveness of a one-session brief advice protocol plus monthly followup telephone calls, focused on the patient's personal responsibility to stop drinking, was compared to standard alcohol treatment for 100 men who were alcohol dependent (Edwards and Orford, 1977). At 1-year followup both groups reported a 40 percent decrease in alcohol-related problems. The study found, at 2-year followup, that the patients with the less severe alcohol problems did best in the brief intervention group. The patients with more serious alcohol-related problems did best in intensive alcohol treatment (Orford et al., 1976).

Several similar studies conducted in New Zealand (Chapman and Huygens, 1988), London (Drummond et al., 1990), the United States (Miller et al., 1980, 1981; Miller and Munoz, 1982), and Norway (Skutle and Berg, 1987) essentially replicated the results of previous positive trials, comparing brief interventions favorably with a variety of extended treatments for problem drinking (including cognitive-behavior therapies, marital therapy, confrontational counseling, and standard inpatient and outpatient treatment).

Sanchez-Craig and colleagues found that when comparing the 12-month treatment outcomes of severely dependent and nonseverely dependent men receiving brief treatment in Toronto and Brazil, there were no significant differences in "successful" outcomes as measured by rates of abstinence or moderate drinking (Sanchez-Craig et al., 1991). The IOM also noted that rates of spontaneous remission of alcoholism suggest that some portion of the most severe alcoholic population will reduce or discontinue their drinking without formal intervention (IOM, 1990).

The largest multisite NIAAA-sponsored study of treatment matching and outcomes, Project MATCH (Matching Alcoholism Treatment to Client Heterogeneity), compared the effects of treatment type on outcomes for more than 1,500 alcohol-dependent patients (Project MATCH Research Group, 1997, 1998). Treatment types included (1) four 1-hour sessions of motivational enhancement therapy, which is often considered a brief intervention even though it is more intensive than most brief interventions (NIAAA, 1995), (2) 12 sessions of 12-Step facilitation, and (3) 12 sessions of cognitive-behavioral coping skills therapy. At 1- and 3-years postintervention, all three groups reported improvements including drinking less often and drinking fewer drinks per day.

A small successful application of a brief motivational intervention within a substance abuse treatment setting administered approximately 1 hour of motivational interviewing for problem drinkers (adapted from Miller and Sovereign, 1989) to seriously opiate-dependent clients recently admitted to a methadone maintenance clinic (Saunders et al., 1995). Fifty-seven clients were randomized to the experimental group and were asked to identify positive and negative aspects of their opiate use and to project the consequences into the future. These clients were then asked to think about their use and discuss it at the 1-week followup session. The 65 subjects in the control group received a 1-hour educational intervention covering six substance-related issues such as overdose responses, legal aspects, and referral sources. Followup sessions were held with both groups at 1 week, 3 months, and 6 months. Significantly fewer clients receiving the motivational intervention dropped out of the study at each of the followup points compared with those receiving the educational component. By the 6-month point, the motivational subjects had significantly fewer opiate-related problems than the others. In comparison with the educational group, the clients receiving the motivational intervention were also more likely to make a positive initial shift on a stage-of-change measure (see the discussion of stages-of-change earlier in this chapter), express a stronger commitment to abstinence, remain in treatment longer, and relapse less quickly if they did drop out. The study concluded that brief motivational interventions strengthened recipients' resolution to abstain from opiate use and participate fully in treatment, and were therefore useful in improving performance and program compliance among clients attending a methadone clinic (Saunders, 1995). This and other studies have found that compliance with a treatment plan, rather than simply length of treatment, is one of the important factors influencing positive outcomes for clients receiving treatment.

In a study looking at the costs of brief interventions, Holder and colleagues evaluated the evidence of clinical effectiveness and the typical costs of various alcoholism treatment modalities and found brief motivational counseling among the most effective in terms of a combination of clinical and cost effectiveness (Holder et al., 1991). It ranked third among the six highest ranking approaches in terms of weighted effectiveness (based on a total of nine studies conducted between 1983 and 1990). Brief motivational counseling was also rated the least costly of the six most effective modalities--or most cost-effective of 33 evaluated modalities. The authors of this study specifically stated that treatment planning and funding decisions should not be based on this initial effort to make "first level approximations" of cost-effectiveness.

Critics have raised concerns that brief interventions could be construed as a treatment panacea for all patients with varying levels of alcohol-related problems and different consumption patterns (Drummond, 1997; Heather, 1995; Mattick and Jarvis, 1994). Although most researchers acknowledge that many clients do not need a protracted and expensive course of individual or group treatment, the literature advocating brief interventions as a treatment for all substance abuse is overstated (Heather, 1995; Mattick and Jarvis, 1994). Caution always needs to be employed in evaluating study recommendations. The clinical trials in this TIP on the use of brief interventions have been specific regarding the targeted population tested and the level of generalizability possible.

Methodological Issues

Issues are frequently raised regarding specific methodological concerns of studies on brief interventions. First, many of the brief intervention studies, particularly those focused on alcohol, rely on self-report data to determine outcomes. The validity of measuring alcohol and other use by self-report is routinely questioned; however, reviewers of relevant literature have concluded that these data are generally valid and reliable (Midanik, 1982; Sobell and Sobell, 1990). Reports from collaterals, such as family members, are not as reliable except for highly visible events, such as drinking-related arrests (Midanik, 1982). Persons with hazardous drinking patterns will provide accurate information about their use, particularly under the following conditions: (1) the setting is a research or clinical one, (2) confidentiality is assured, and (3) the interview is administered when the respondent is sober (Sobell and Sobell, 1990). Techniques to increase the accuracy of self-reports have been employed in recent studies (Fleming et al., 1997, 1999). These studies use interviewers who fully understand drinking-related questions and can explain confusion about common terms (e.g., "blackouts," "high").

Concerns about the methodological limitations of some trials have included sample sizes that were too small and a statistical power insufficient to reliably detect differences between effects in the groups compared (Bien et al., 1993; Mattick and Jarvis, 1994). There may be differential attrition in groups at followup, and these dropouts can be ignored or excluded from analyses (Bien et al., 1993; Drummond, 1997; Kahan et al., 1995), or there could be contamination because the comparison group could be seeking additional treatment during the course of the research (Bien et al., 1993; Kahan et al., 1995; Mattick and Jarvis, 1994). Also, randomization of samples has not always been conducted (Wilk et al., 1997), and some early studies did not have control groups or did not have an adequate comparison group (Bien et al., 1993). Some of the newer brief intervention studies have addressed many of these concerns (Fleming et al., 1997, 1999). These, however, remain issues that must be addressed by new studies of brief intervention techniques with special populations and with new technology.

Future Issues in Research and Practice

The background research in this TIP is based on the most rigorous trials from the 1960s through the 1990s. As study designs have become more sophisticated, many of the earlier methodological issues are being addressed. Questions remain regarding specific levels of abuse and dependence after which brief intervention approaches are less effective and more intensive treatment is required. It is possible that factors such as social stability and support (as indicated in Edwards and Orford, 1977) play a role in improved responses to briefer treatments and that these factors may be more important than the level of substance abuse or dependence.

As secondary analyses are conducted from more recent clinical trials, some of the strongest covariates will emerge. Further research focused specifically on the myriad of issues that could affect outcomes is needed to determine whether brief interventions can be useful for clients with dual diagnoses or whether they always require more intensive treatments because of the complexity of their illnesses. Although there is ongoing research testing the effectiveness of brief interventions with patients who have serious psychiatric illnesses and coexisting substance abuse disorders, there are no published studies that definitively address this issue.

There is strong evidence supporting the efficacy of alcohol screening and brief interventions, in particular (Fleming et al., 1997). However, few studies to date have tested the implementation of brief intervention strategies in community-based medical and treatment settings. Several new initiatives address this critical next step in the process. Higgins-Biddle and colleagues identified the research base and current applications of screening and brief interventions (Higgins-Biddle et al., 1997). The findings on the effectiveness from clinical trials on screening and brief interventions were found to be encouraging, with risky drinkers reducing their alcohol consumption by 20 percent, on average. Individual study results varied from 15 to 40 percent depending on the population and methodology used. In the next few years, focused work in these areas will inform clinicians regarding optimal brief intervention implementation strategies and provide a bridge from research efficacy to practical application in real world clinical settings.

There is evidence that a variety of brief interventions are effective with at-risk and hazardous substance users, and emerging evidence suggests that brief interventions can be used to motivate patients to seek specialized substance abuse treatment and to treat some alcohol-dependent persons. Clinical evidence also suggests that brief interventions can be used in specialized treatment programs to address specific targeted issues.

In sum, the Consensus Panel believes it is critical for policymakers and providers of managed care to understand that brief interventions should never be thought of as the only treatment option for persons with substance abuse problems but as one of a continuum of techniques for use with a population of clients with substance abuse problems ranging from at-risk to dependent use.


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