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Online survey lets you check your drinking

It’s a simple online screening tool to check the amount you drink – and it works, says its developer, University of Toronto professor John Cunningham.

BY CAROLYN WONG | JAN 12 2011

It’s a simple online screening tool to check the amount you drink – and it works, says its developer, University of Toronto professor John Cunningham.

Checkyourdrinking.net asks people several simple questions about their drinking habits and then provides a report detailing things such as the percentage of days you drank in the last year, the number of pounds you gained from alcohol, how much money you spent and how your drinking measures up with others in your age group. It also gives a score to indicate how serious your drinking is from “no problem” to “dependence.”

“This kind of intervention – where a brief assessment is made and feedback is provided – has been validated in face-to-face settings,” says Dr. Cunningham, a professor of social and behavioural health sciences in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “We thought we would create an online version to see if it would help more people.”

It did. In a study conducted with 72 problem drinkers, those who completed the screening survey (about half the group) reduced their alcohol consumption after six months by 30 percent more than those who did not take the survey.

The screening tool is available through Evolution Health Systems, for whom Dr. Cunningham had acted as a consultant.

What is it about this simple survey that motivates people to curb their drinking? Dr. Cunningham says there could be several factors at play. First, heavy drinkers tend to overestimate how much other people drink – until the screener shows them. “By seeing how they compare to others, they might be motivated to cut back,” he says. “People don’t like to be seen as abnormal.”

Second, people generally don’t think too much about alcohol consumption, so just by virtue of having this information, whether it be how many calories gained or how many dollars spent, it’s enough for them to think twice about their drinking habits.

“The screener was designed to provide a range of information that could be the ‘hook’ for different people,” says Dr. Cunningham. “We just wanted to encourage people to think about their drinking and how to drink in less harmful ways.”

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