Pre-operative intervention for excessive alcohol consumption among patients scheduled for elective surgery has been shown to reduce complications of surgery. However, successful intervention depends upon an effective and practical screening procedure. This study examines current screening practices for excessive alcohol consumption amongst patients scheduled for elective surgery in general hospitals. It also examines the appropriateness of potential sites and staff for pre-operative screening. Forms used routinely to assess alcohol consumption in the pre-admission clinics (PAC) of eight Sydney hospitals were examined. In addition, the appropriateness of six staff categories (surgeons, surgeons' secretaries, junior medical officer, anaesthetists, nurses and a research assistant) and of two sites (surgeons' office and PAC) in conducting additional screening was assessed at two hospitals. Outcomes included observed advantages and disadvantages of sites and personnel, and number of cases with excessive drinking identified. There was duplication in information collected routinely on alcohol use in the PACs in eight Sydney Hospitals. Questions on alcohol consumption in patient self-completion forms were not validated. The PAC provided for efficient screening but time to surgery was typically too short for successful intervention in many cases. A validated tool and efficient screening procedure is required to detect excessive drinking before elective surgery. Patients often present to the PAC too close to the time of surgery for any change in drinking to reverse alcohol's effects. The role of the referring general practitioner and of printed advice from the surgeon in preparing patients for surgery needs further investigation.