Tips for Talking to Patients About Addiction 

Updated on January 12, 2020

As a medical practitioner, you know there are a lot of difficult conversations that must happen between doctor and patient. One of those topics is addiction. No matter whether they’re a friend, family, or patient, there are some important ways to go about addressing addiction. To express the support someone needs during this time, you must strive to be an effective and compassionate communicator. Help your patient take the steps toward recovery—follow these tips for talking to patients about addiction

Ask About Past Substance Abuse

Your starting point when identifying and talking about addiction should begin with a quick screen question. Something about how many times in the past year they’ve used alcohol, tobacco products, illegal drugs, and the like should give you a quick answer as to whether you need to delve into the conversation. If you notice any at-risk patients, it’s time to talk to them about seeking help.

Determine Risk Level

If that quick question indicates that your patient is at risk, then you should move forward. One way to do so is with the NIDA-Modified Alcohol, Smoking, and Substance Screening Test. This will give you important questions to ask your patient and will then provide you with a substance involvement score. When asking these questions, make sure to keep the following tips in mind.

Talk in a Quiet Place

When talking to anyone about substance abuse, it’s important to do so in a quiet area. This will help your patient feel safe and secure, and it also ensures that this conversation remains private. Make sure that you use a calm, level voice that in no way challenges or belittles your patient. 

Understand Common Obstacles

Now this is a tip that’s vital to remember both before and during this discussion. There are various obstacles to recovering from addiction, and if you can show your patient that you understand these, it can help them move forward. Better yet, recognize these obstacles and then do your best to provide some solutions for them. The more your patient feels like you’re on their side, the easier it will be for them to ask for and accept help.

Listen Without Judgement

When you ask your patient questions from the NIDA test or questions of your own, make sure to listen without judgement. Just like it’s important to talk calmly, it can be even more meaningful for your patient if you listen without judgment. You may be the only person who knows, and if you begin this conversation and this first step to recovery on a bad note, it will become hard for that person to move forward. 

Don’t Force Admittance of the Problem

This one is quite simple—don’t force your patient to admit that he/she has a problem. If they don’t feel comfortable enough to open up, you can’t force it. All you can do is provide them with the support and resources they need. 

Offer Help Based on Readiness Level

Finally, and most importantly, offer help. This assistance is quite different depending on your patient’s readiness level. If the patient is ready to quit, then help them in their efforts to do so. If your patient is unwilling, provide them with information about substance abuse as a health problem and let them know that you will continue to check in.

Though there is no perfect way to discuss this topic, do your best to stay as respectful and understanding as possible. The calmer you are, the easier they’ll take it, as it’s a conversation that you must have with them.

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