SYDNEY- Family doctors in the state of South Australia are set to screen patients for possible gambling addiction.
This comes as problem gambling is increasingly being recognised as a medical problem. It has been found that one gambler's addiction can impact the lives of up to seven other people.
Under the plan, patients will be asked during their regular health check-ups if they have any gambling issues. If the patients admit to being problem gamblers, the doctors can treat them, refer them to a psychiatrist or recommend support services such as financial counselling.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA), the body which represents the nation's doctors, is pushing for the programme to be adopted across the country.
It says many gambling addicts are ashamed to admit they have a problem, but are more likely to open up to family doctors, whom they see regularly and trust.
"There is a stigma to gambling," the AMA's federal president, Dr Steve Hamilton, told The Straits Times.
Explaining why general practitioners (GPs) are a good place to start, he said: "GPs can uncover the problems and start to get solutions... You often can't tell by looking at someone that they have a problem."
Australia has between 80,000 and 160,000 problem gamblers, or up to 1 per cent of adults, according to a government inquiry in 2010. Another 350,000 people - or 2.1 per cent of adults - are "vulnerable" to problem gambling.
Most problem gambling in Australia has been linked to addiction to slot machines. About 20 per cent of the world's machines are found in this country.
The move to involve doctors in treatment follows growing recognition of problem gambling as a medical condition. The American Psychiatric Association's latest manual of mental disorders, released earlier this year, officially identified "gambling disorder" as a "behavioural addiction".
Dr Hamilton said gambling addiction is "interwoven with medical issues". "Any addiction, or compulsion to do something with a harmful outcome, can interfere with your life," he added.
"For every (problem gambler), it is estimated that five to seven others are impacted," Communities and Social Inclusion Minister Tony Piccolo told The Adelaide Advertiser.
Experts say the main barrier to people seeking help is the stigma associated with gambling addiction.
A study released in November by the Australian National University's Centre for Gambling Research found that gamblers often hide their problem, even from themselves, because they view it as shameful.
"Addressing problem gambling as a matter of public health - much like how substance addictions and mental health problems are addressed - may go a long way to reducing the stigma," the study said.
The South Australia government said the new medical screening was developed with doctors and designed to ensure intervention and alleviate the impact on families.
Government figures show that only 15 per cent of problem gamblers seek help and they lose an average A$21,000 (S$23,735) a year. The total national cost in extra welfare, lost earnings and health and crime costs is about A$4.7 billion a year.
But efforts to rein in gamblers have come up against a powerful gaming lobby, which donates large sums to political parties.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's government is set to wind back measures introduced by Labor in recent years to restrict gambling. He has flagged plans to abolish caps of A$250 for ATM withdrawals at gaming venues and warning systems on poker machines for excess use or spending.
Experts have criticised the government for scaling back gambling reforms but say the best way to combat problem gambling is with treatment and early intervention.
"Formal treatment remains the most effective way we currently have of dealing with problem gamblers," said Professor Shane Thomas and Professor Collette Browning, both from Monash University, in an article on The Conversation website.
"Well-trained practitioners can deliver sustained reductions in gambling spend, debt, frequency and associated negative consequences using structured programmes," said the article, which noted that "treatment uptake is a challenge".
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