Getting Heavy Drinkers to Quit Before Surgery

A new study of male patients in the Veterans Affairs healthcare system suggests that surgeons should postpone surgery for heavy drinkers in order to make the procedures safer and more effective.

Heavy drinking has been known to lead to longer hospital stays, more days in intensive care and an increased likelihood of returning to the operating room.

The study, published in the March issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, was based on the responses of 5,171 male patients.

Researchers found that patients who drink four or more glasses of alcohol a day are more likely to have post-surgical complications than those who drink in moderation or not at all. According to the study, getting a heavy drinker to give up alcohol for 30 days drastically reduces the risk of complications after surgery.

Patients were categorized according to the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT-C). The lowest category of alcohol users is defined as AUDIT-C 1-4, while heavy drinkers are rated AUDIT-C 9-12. For scoring purposes, one alcoholic beverage was defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of table wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

Results of the study showed that heavy drinkers experienced increased inpatient health care use relative to moderate and non-drinkers in all areas except hospital readmissions. Men categorized as AUDIT-C 9-12 spent nearly a day longer in the hospital and 1.5 more days in the ICU, and they were twice as likely to return to the OR compared with people in the AUDIT-C 1-4 range (10% vs. 5%, respectively).

Primary care physicians are encouraged to run AUDIT-C screenings on elective surgery candidates when considering whether or not to refer their patients for surgery.

“The findings from this study indicate that preoperative alcohol screening might serve as an effective tool to identify patients at risk for increased postoperative care,” said Anna D. Rubinsky, PhC, lead author of the study, in a statement. “Implementing preoperative alcohol screening and providing proactive interventions could potentially decrease the need for costly postoperative resources and improve patient outcomes.”

For more information about the study, visit



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