SHARC Hosts Focus Group at HealthStreet

University of Florida researchers within the Southern HIV and Alcohol Consortium will study which health consequences of drinking on the brain and body are reversible. Participants in a focus group met at HealthStreet to help plan the study.

The study, which also involves the University of Miami, Florida International University, Brown University and the Florida Department of Health, will examine the health changes of heavy drinkers after 30 and 90 days from alcohol abstinence.

“Some people can have heavy drinking all their life, so it’s unclear whether they’ve already caused damage to the brain and body or whether, if they stop now, they might see a major difference,” said Dr. Robert Cook, principal investigator of the study and director of SHARC.

The study’s main focus is heavy drinking within the HIV population. Cook said across almost all populations with HIV, there is an association with heavy drinking and several bad health outcomes. “Both the clinical and the public health side have had a difficult time teasing out which particular patients have problems and need to stop drinking versus those that don’t appear to be having any harm for their drinking,” he said.

While this intervention requires study participants to stop drinking, Cook said it is different from studies with similar requirements. Typically, these studies try to convince people to stop drinking and test the effectiveness of various strategies.

But this study doesn’t do that.

“We are not going in telling people that they need to stop drinking,” Cook said. “We’re asking people to stop doing it just for an experiment so that we can see what happens.

At the end of the study, it will be up to participants to decide whether to resume their previous drinking behaviors. Cook said that’s something else researchers are interested in examining. They want to understand how people make decisions about reductions in drinking and what strategies they use to do it.

Research will start in Miami because there is a greater number of patients with HIV. Researchers are also recruiting people without HIV to act as somewhat of a comparison. Study participants will be required to wear an ankle biosensor that detects alcohol. It is similar to ankle monitors used for house arrests.

Cook estimates that only 5-10 percent of those with HIV are eligible to participate in the study though.

In preparation of the larger study, Cook and other SHARC members met at HealthStreet in January for a focus group.

“I thought it was great that we just showed up to HealthStreet, and there were eight or nine people there ready to participate,” he said. Joseph Sacht, a study coordinator with the study, was also pleased with HealthStreet’s assistance.

“HealthStreet has been a tremendous help in planning our focus group,” Sacht said, “The views and opinions of HealthStreet participants are very appreciated and valued by the SHARC staff. This information will help us make our larger study the best experience possible for all participants.”

Participants in the focus group included men and women aged 45 or older. Heavy drinking in this study was quantified by consumption of more than seven drinks per week or more than three drinks per occasion for women. For men, it was more than 14 drinks per week or more than four drinks per occasion. This matches the National Institute of Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse’s criteria for high-risk drinking.

Cook said the goal of the focus group was to get feedback from people who are similar to those who will participate in the actual study.

During the focus group, researchers presented the focus group with various scenarios that would concern study participants. Because the study uses contingency management, which is paying people to do certain activities, the focus group was asked to provide opinions how much to pay study participants. They also offered opinions on having to wear the ankle monitor.

“I walked away from the focus group believing that people want to reduce their drinking and are looking for strategies to help them,” Cook said.

To see how HealthStreet can assist in recruiting willing participants for your health research study, contact Lauren Light at or by phone at (352) 294-4873.