More than two thirds of major U.S. teaching hospitals give patients alcohol to treat alcohol withdrawal, reports Swift, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior, in the February 5 Journal of the American Medical Association.

BAM What’s wrong with this practice?
Swift Alcohol is not an approved treatment for alcohol withdrawal. We’re giving a controlled substance, an addictive drug potentially, to people who may have problems with it. It doesn’t send a good message when you can prescribe beer for an alcoholic or an alcoholic can ask for alcohol in the hospital. It doesn’t treat their condition. It potentially promotes it. These days, someone who’s nicotine-dependent can’t smoke in the hospital.

BAM How do hospitals treat alcohol compared to other drugs?
Swift If you’re in a hospital and you get a headache and you want a Tylenol, you ask a nurse. And the nurse says, “I have to ask the doctor for an order.” But in a lot of hospitals you can order alcohol with dinner. Just say, “I want a couple of Buds.”

BAM Should alcohol be banned from hospitals?
Swift I’m not necessarily saying we have to take alcohol off the menus. For some people a small amount of alcohol may actually be good. But alcohol should be subject to the same sorts of controls as other substances and drugs. It’s interesting that with all the regulation and computerization of pharmacies and worry about drug interactions, nobody ever considers alcohol. Somehow alcohol has become a blind spot in American hospitals.

—Interview by Zachary Block ’99