STUDENT nurses are not being trained to spot patients with alcohol problems and lack the confidence to deal with them, Scottish researchers have warned.
An Edinburgh University expert, who has studied the content of nurse training programmes, says they are not confident enough to tackle the sensitive subject of heavy drinking with patients as they are not taught how to do so.
In the first project of its kind in the UK, Dr Aisha Holloway, a lecturer in nursing studies at Edinburgh University, and her colleague Professor Brian Webster investigated the way alcohol abuse was covered by nursing courses.
She said: "I think we have got a workforce that is unprepared to respond to alcohol related harm. That is the key worry. They do not know how to deal with these patients."
For her study, Ms Holloway examined information about the way alcohol misuse was covered by 29 different nursing courses across the UK.
Her analysis, published in the journal Nurse Education Today, said: "The curriculum content is not addressing all key elements that will equip future registrants to address patients and clients with alcohol related harm."
While 17 courses featured the identification and assessment of patients with alcohol problems during year two, the research raised concern that some programmes gave the subject very little attention.
Ms Holloway said: "The nurses were being trained about what alcohol does (to the body) and the drugs we use for people who are dependent, but in terms of how to speak to someone about their alcohol problems and how to help them change their behaviour, that was not in the curriculum."
Dr Holloway said 43% of the healthcare workforce consists of nurses and midwives.
Patients arriving at accident and emergency after a fall or having routine tests at their health centre will often be seen by nurses, and these encounters could provide an opportunity for staff to engage the patient about their levels of drinking.
However, Ms Holloway said many nurses, already busy with many other jobs, did not raise the subject with patients.
She said: "Other research has shown nurses feel inadequately prepared to do this.
"They see it as a specialist role and they do not have the confidence to speak to people about alcohol consumption."
This, she said, meant that opportunities were missed to help tackle dangerous drinking habits, which kill 25 people every week in Scotland alone.
She also felt courses aimed at paediatric nurses and nurses who deal with patients with learning disabilities should include the topic.
Even if their own drinking causes no problems, these patients can be affected by their carers' consumption. It is estimated that up to 51,000 children in Scotland live with a problem drinking parent.
The Royal College of Nursing Scotland has backed her call for the subject to be routinely included in the student nurse curriculum.
Ellen Hudson, associate director for professional practice with the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, said: "Nurses are ideally placed to identify patients who are consuming too much alcohol and to offer them support and advice on the risks to their health of excessive drinking.
"We know that so-called brief alcohol interventions work, when nurses discuss the dangers of drinking with individuals and offer them support and advice.
"With the right education and training, nurses in all fields of practice can make a valuable contribution to the battle against the problems caused by alcohol in our society today, so it makes absolute sense to build this into the nursing curriculum and include it as part of nurses' pre-registration training."