Many trials reported that brief interventions are effective in reducing excessive drinking. However, some trials have been criticised for being clinically unrepresentative and unable to inform clinical practice.
To assess the effectiveness of brief intervention, delivered in general practice or based primary care, to reduce alcohol consumption. To assess whether outcomes differ between trials in research settings and those in routine clinical settings.
We searched the Cochrane Drug and Alcohol Group specialised register (February 2006), MEDLINE (1966 to February 2006), EMBASE (1980 to February 2006), CINAHL (1982 to February 2006), PsycINFO (1840 to February 2006), Science Citation Index (1970 to February 2006), Social Science Citation Index (1970 to February 2006), Alcohol and Alcohol Problems Science Database (1972 to 2003), reference lists of articles.
Randomised controlled trials, patients presenting to primary care not specifically for alcohol treatment; brief intervention of up to four sessions.
Two authors independently abstracted data and assessed trial quality. Random effects meta-analyses, sub-group, sensitivity analyses, and meta-regression were conducted.
Meta-analysis of 22 RCTs (enrolling 7,619 participants) showed that participants receiving brief intervention had lower alcohol consumption than the control group after follow-up of one year or longer (mean difference: -38 grams/week, 95% CI: -54 to -23), although there was substantial heterogeneity between trials (I2 = 57%). Sub-group analysis (8 studies, 2,307 participants) confirmed the benefit of brief intervention in men (mean difference: -57 grams/week, 95% CI: -89 to -25, I2 = 56%), but not in women (mean difference: -10 grams/week, 95% CI: -48 to 29, I2 = 45%). Meta-regression showed little evidence of a greater reduction in alcohol consumption with longer treatment exposure or among trials which were less clinically representative. Extended intervention was associated with a non-significantly greater reduction in alcohol consumption than brief intervention (mean difference = -28, 95%CI: -62 to 6 grams/week, I2 = 0%)
Overall, brief interventions lowered alcohol consumption. When data were available by gender, the effect was clear in men at one year of follow up, but not in women. Longer duration of counselling probably has little additional effect. The lack of evidence of any difference in outcomes between efficacy and effectiveness trials suggests that the current literature is relevant to routine primary care. Future trials should focus on women and on delineating the most effective components of interventions.
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