Redefining Alcohol Use Disorder to Improve Diagnosis and Treatment

a glass of beer on a bar top

Alcohol is among the leading risk factors in disease burden (the impact of a health problem by financial cost), and injuries related to alcohol use make up a major part of the health costs from alcohol use. 

In a 2015 study reviewing data from emergency departments in 18 countries, PHI’s Alcohol Research group (ARG) found an increasing risk relationship between alcohol and injury, with injury risk doubling at just one drink. In 2016, the ARG findings informed safe drinking guidelines for Australia and Canada, giving physicians stronger guidance for urging patients to modify their alcohol consumption habits. 

Further ARG work showed that injuries from alcohol use do not only come from repeat, heavy drinkers. In 2018, a 21 country study of emergency department visits by ARG researchers found that some people with no history of harmful alcohol use or dependence were coming to the hospital for alcohol-related injuries due to a single episode of drinking.

This ARG research influenced an important change to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), a set of standards that help doctors understand and advise their patients about their health conditions and treatments. Setting accurate criteria in the ICD for alcohol use disorder is vital for doctors to best advise and work with patients facing issues with their alcohol consumption.

Due to ARG’s research and advocacy, the ICD-11 (the 2019 update of the standard, which takes effect in 2022) includes an “episode of harmful use of alcohol” as a new diagnostic category. This change gives doctors and researchers new insights into understanding and treating people who may need help with their alcohol consumption.

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