Some 60,000 doctors will be specially trained to detect patients with an alcohol problem, the Department of Health said yesterday.
Dawn Primarolo, the public health minister, said she would instruct all medical schools in England to make the identification and treatment of alcohol misuse part of the compulsory curriculum for undergraduate doctors. Within 10 years, that would produce 60,000 clinicians with the skills needed to tackle an epidemic of persistent binge drinking.
The NHS will also provide an e-learning training package for GPs who are already practising, but this element of the strategy will be voluntary.
Primarolo told a BMA conference of public health specialists that alcohol misuse costs the NHS about £1.7bn a year. For every £1 invested in specialist alcohol services for dependent drinkers, the public purse saves £5, including a £1.65 saving for the NHS, she said.
The government estimates that about 1.1 million heavy drinkers may already have symptoms such as liver damage and they might be advised to go for hospital treatment or a spell in a drying out clinic. It believes there are also about 10 million people consuming alcohol above the safe limit. The spokeswoman said GPs have found about one in nine patients comply with medical advice to drink less. The others might need counselling, she added.
A spokesman for Alcohol Concern welcomed the move, but said the training programme did not go far enough.
"This issue needs a package of measures - GPs must also be incentivised to raise alcohol issues. Until this happens, the undergraduate training alone may not be enough to help patients reduce their drinking."