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Ann Fam Med. 2004 Sep-Oct;2(5):398-404.

Comfortably engaging: which approach to alcohol screening should we use?

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  • 1The Center for Family Medicine Science, Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, MO 65212, USA.



We wanted to compare 2 screening instruments for problem drinking, the CAGE and a single question, assessing frequency of use, patient and clinician comfort, and patient engagement in change.


The study was a crossover, cluster-randomized clinical trial with 31 clinicians in Missouri and 13 in the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) National Network for Family Practice and Primary Care Research; 2,800 patients provided data. The clinician was the unit of randomization. Clinicians decided whether to screen each patient; if they chose to screen, they used the screening approach assigned for that block of patients. The clinician and patient separately completed questionnaires immediately after the office visit to assess each one's comfort with screening (and any ensuing discussion) and the patient's engagement in change.


Missouri clinicians screened more patients when assigned the single question (81%) than the CAGE (69%, P = .001 in weighted analysis). There was no difference among AAFP network clinicians (96% of patients screened with the CAGE, 97% with the single question). Eighty percent to 90% of clinicians and 70% of patients reported being comfortable with screening and the ensuing discussion, with no difference between approaches in either network. About one third of patients who were identified as problem drinkers reported thinking about or planning to change their drinking behavior, with no difference in engagement between screening approaches.


Clinicians and patients reported similar comfort with the CAGE questions and the single-question screening tools for problem drinking, and the 2 instruments were equal in their ability to engage the patient. In Missouri, the single question was more likely to be used.

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