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Supporting Patients Who Take Medications for Alcohol Dependence

Pharmacotherapy for alcohol dependence is most effective when combined with some behavioral support, but this doesn't need to be specialized, intensive alcohol counseling. Nurses and physicians in general medical and mental health settings, as well as counselors, can offer brief but effective behavioral support that promotes recovery. Applying this medication management approach in such settings would greatly expand access to effective treatment, given that many patients with alcohol dependence either don't have access to specialty treatment or refuse a referral.

How can general medical and mental health clinicians support patients who take medication for alcohol dependence?

Managing the care of patients who take medication for alcohol dependence is similar to other disease management strategies such as initiating insulin therapy in patients with diabetes mellitus. In the recent Combining Medications and Behavioral Interventions (COMBINE) clinical trial, physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals in outpatient settings delivered a series of brief behavioral support sessions for patients taking medications for alcohol dependence.22 The sessions promoted recovery by increasing adherence to medication and supporting abstinence through education and referral to support groups.22 This Guide offers a set of how-to templates outlining this program (see pages 19-22). It was designed for easy implementation in nonspecialty settings, in keeping with the national trend toward integrating the treatment of substance use disorders into medical practice.

What are the components of medication management support?

Medication management support consists of brief, structured outpatient sessions conducted by a health care professional. The initial session starts by reviewing the medical evaluation results with the patient as well as the negative consequences from drinking. This information frames a discussion about the diagnosis of alcohol dependence, the recommendation for abstinence, and the rationale for medication. The clinician then provides information on the medication itself and adherence strategies, and encourages participation in a mutual support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

In subsequent visits, the clinician assesses the patient's drinking, overall functioning, medication adherence, and any side effects from the medication. Session structure varies according to the patient's drinking status and treatment compliance, as outlined on page 22. When a patient doesn't adhere to the medication regimen, it's important to evaluate the reasons and help the patient devise plans to address them. A helpful summary of strategies for handling nonadherence is provided in the "Medical Management Treatment Manual" from Project COMBINE, available online at

As conducted in the COMBINE trial, the program consisted of an initial session of about 45 minutes followed by eight 20-minute sessions during weeks 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 16. General medical or mental health practices may not follow this particular schedule, but it’s offered along with the templates as a starting point for developing a program that works for your practice and your patients.

Can medication management support be used with patients who don’t endorse a goal of abstinence?

This medication management program has been tested only in patients for whom abstinence was recommended, as is true with most pharmacotherapy studies. It’s not known whether it would also work if the patient’s goal is to cut back instead of abstain. Even when patients do endorse abstinence as a goal, they often cut back without quitting. You’re encouraged to continue working with those patients who are working toward recovery but haven’t yet met the optimal goals of abstinence or reduced drinking with full remission of dependence symptoms. You may also find many of the techniques used in medication management support—such as linking symptoms and laboratory results with heavy alcohol use—to be helpful for managing alcohol-dependent patients in general.


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