The demise of a planned randomised controlled trial in an urban Aboriginal medical service

Beverly M Sibthorpe, Ross S Bailie, Maggie A Brady, Sandra A Ball, Polly Sumner-Dodd and Wayne D Hall
Med J Aust 2002; 177 (4): 222-223. || doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2002.tb04739.x
Published online: 19 August 2002

To the Editor: The recent article by Sibthorpe et al1 and the accompanying editorial2 on the issue of the failure of an alcohol intervention trial in an Aboriginal Health Service deal with problems facing all primary care practitioners in the field of "alcohol misuse" and should not be seen as a peculiarly Aboriginal problem.

Firstly, despite what the academics may tell us, administering an Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) questionnaire in general practice as a screening measure meets with huge resistance, no matter where you practice. Denial of the disease-inducing potential of alcohol is certainly not peculiar to Aboriginal society.

Secondly, I find that the bulk of the medical profession reinforces this community denial by diagnosing conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia instead of seeing these problems as being a manifestation of alcoholism or other "alcohol misuse" until proven otherwise. Indeed, the denial is so extreme that they tend to avoid the term "alcoholism" altogether. Specialists are in even greater denial and are more often a hindrance than a help to general practitioners in this regard. As a consequence, community leaders and affected families are unable to develop effective strategies for dealing with their problems. What they get instead is increasing healthcare costs, hospital bed shortages, increasing domestic violence, more "drug problems" and more prisons.

So "GP reluctance or inability to follow through . . ."2 is not surprising. Indeed, denial of alcohol is so strong in the medical profession that it is harder, in my experience, to get doctors and even medical students (let alone healthcare workers) to attend open meetings of Alcholics Anonymous and Al-Anon than it is to persuade affected people to do so.

Thirdly, general practice throughout Australia has been organised for episodic, fast-throughput care. People have become so accustomed to this that they see any attempt at a comprehensive preventive approach to illness as odd, out of place, time-consuming and even intrusive, especially so where alcohol and family histories are concerned. That Aboriginal people are no different from the rest of us in this regard should cause no surprise.

  • Beverly M Sibthorpe
  • Ross S Bailie
  • Maggie A Brady
  • Sandra A Ball
  • Polly Sumner-Dodd
  • Wayne D Hall


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