March 15, 2012

Gannett Screens for High Risk Drinking, Drawing Student Ire

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In an effort to address high-risk drinking on campus, on Feb. 6 Gannett Health Services implemented a policy of screening every student patient for signs of alcohol dependency or abuse ––  a decision that some students say they consider an invasion of privacy.

According to Deborah Lewis, Gannett’s alcohol projects coordinator, both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend screening for high-risk drinking and alcohol problems as a routine part of health care.

“When students come in for their appointment they are asked — if they are female — have they had four or more drinks in a sitting in the past two weeks and — if they’re male — if they’ve had five or more,” Lewis said.

According to Lewis, no student, no matter his or her reason for scheduling an appointment at Gannett, is exempt from being asked this preliminary question about alcohol behavior.

“I think that in so many cases, alcohol use can be connected to issues that bring students to the health center,” she said.

If a student answers yes to the first question, he or she is then asked to fill out a 10-part questionnaire called the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, according to Lewis.

The AUDIT contains questions such as “How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?” and “Has a relative or friend or doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking and suggested you cut down?”

Participants’ responses are scored on a 40-point scale to determine the level of risk their alcohol use poses to their health, according to Lewis. If a student scores above 16 — indicating a significant risk level — the health care provider sits down with the student during their appointment and discusses options for further treatment, Lewis said.

She added, however, that every student who takes the AUDIT — regardless of their score — receives a follow-up message from Gannett. Patients who score less than a 7 receive information on alcohol abuse, while those who fall between 7 and 15 are referred to Gannet programs such as Counseling and Psychological Services.

Though Lewis stressed that the AUDIT is not mandatory, Wendy Schubert ’12 said the nurse who administered her AUDIT did not make her aware that she had a choice.

“My nurse handed it to me and made me think it was something that was required for me to fill out,” Schubert said.

Schubert also said that she was not told of the purpose of the AUDIT. She said she did not know that her score had become a part of her medical record until she received a message through Gannett’s online messaging system.

“I didn’t even think they could correlate my answers with my name,” Schubert said. “I was under the impression that it would be anonymous, like I was submitting my scores to a general research project.”

Another student who was administered the questionnaire, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he felt that the questions were a violation of his privacy.

“I came into Gannett because I had a sinus infection, so I can’t see how they assume they have the right to ask me about my drinking,” he said.

According to Lewis, the death of George Desdunes ’13 last year influenced Gannett’s decision to begin issuing AUDITs to students who come in for appointments.

“In part [Desdunes’ death] was the force [that] led us toward a push for screening for high-risk alcohol use in primary care,” she said.

While Schubert said she understands the motivations behind the questionnaire, she added that she believes there is room for improvement in the way that Gannett administers the survey.

“I can see the need [for the AUDIT] because Cornell is a college campus and drinking is a huge issue,” she said. “But I think [Gannett] needs to absolutely provide people with more context.”

Original Author: Shane Dunau