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Factors Underlying Quality Problems with Alcohol Screening Prompted by a Clinical Reminder in Primary Care: A Multi-site Qualitative Study.

Williams EC, Achtmeyer CE, Thomas RM, Grossbard JR, Lapham GT, Chavez LJ, Ludman EJ, Berger D, Bradley KA. Factors Underlying Quality Problems with Alcohol Screening Prompted by a Clinical Reminder in Primary Care: A Multi-site Qualitative Study. Journal of general internal medicine. 2015 Aug 1; 30(8):1125-32.

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BACKGROUND: Population-based alcohol screening is recommended in primary care, and increasingly incentivized by policies, yet is challenging to implement. The U.S. Veterans Health Administration (VA) achieved high rates of screening using a national performance measure and associated electronic clinical reminder to prompt and facilitate screening and document results. However, the sensitivity of alcohol screening for identifying unhealthy alcohol use is low in VA clinics. OBJECTIVE: We aimed to understand factors that might contribute to low sensitivity of alcohol screening. DESIGN: This was an observational, qualitative study. PARTICIPANTS: Participants included clinical staff responsible for conducting alcohol screening and nine independently managed primary care clinics of a single VA medical center in the Northwestern U.S. APPROACH: Four researchers observed clinical staff as they conducted alcohol screening. Observers took handwritten notes, which were transcribed and coded iteratively. Template analysis identified a priori and emergent themes. KEY RESULTS: We observed 72 instances of alcohol screening conducted by 31 participating staff. Observations confirmed known challenges to implementation of care using clinical reminders, including workflow and flexibility limitations. Three themes specific to alcohol screening emerged. First, most observed screening was conducted verbally, guided by the clinical reminder, although some variability in approaches to screening (e.g., paper-based or laminate-based screening) was observed. Second, specific verbal screening practices that might contribute to low sensitivity of clinical screening were identified, including conducting non-verbatim screening and making inferences, assumptions, and/or suggestions to input responses. Third, staff introduced and adapted screening questions to enhance patient comfort. CONCLUSIONS: This qualitative study in nine clinics found that implementation of alcohol screening facilitated by a clinical reminder resulted primarily in verbal screening in which questions were not asked vertbatim and were otherwise adapted. Non-verbal approaches to screening, or patient self-administration, may enhance validity and standardization of screening while simultaneously addressing limitations of the clinical reminder and issues related to perceived discomfort.

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