Today in the chart

USPSTF Wants Clinicians to Screen All Adults for Illicit Drug Use — But What About Teens?

The US Preventive Services Task Force has temporarily revised its guidelines for illicit drug use screening, now advising healthcare practitioners to do so in patients 18 or older.

The US Preventive Services Taskforce has temporarily revised its guidelines for illicit drug use screening, now advising healthcare practitioners to do so in patients 18 or older.

“Screening should be implemented when services for accurate diagnosis, effective treatment, and appropriate care can be offered or referred,” reads the draft recommendation, open to public comment until Sept. 9. It also suggests providers screen pregnant and postpartum women.

Teenagers, however, are a different story. The statement deliberately doesn’t draw a hardline stance on whether (and when) it’s appropriate to ask kids between 12 and 17 years old about illicit drug use.

“The USPSTF concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for illicit drug use in adolescents,” the new guidelines state. The USPSTF also didn’t find enough evidence to indicate that current screening tools are effective for children.

How Often Should Providers Screen Teens for Substance Use?

Lack of definitive guidelines aside, the USPSTF is not recommending providers never screen teens for drug use. Providers should strive to screen teenage patients for substance abuse at least once a year, says Lucien Gonzalez, MD, MS, FAAP, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Substance Use and Prevention.

“Screening is about casting a wide net,” Dr. Gonzalez says. “It’s done to detect potential health issues in people who do not yet have any symptoms. In addition to identifying kids with substance-related problems, it’s an opportunity to catch kids earlier so we can educate, prevent, and provide earlier intervention where we can.”

For younger adolescents, it’s relatively easy for providers to perform a screening at a well visit. On the other hand, 16 and 17-year-olds are less likely to attend regular check-ups, so it’s often appropriate to screen older teens when seeking acute care, Dr. Gonzalez says.

He also stresses the difference between screening and “fact-finding.” The latter occurs when you believe substance use could’ve played a role in why the child is seeking care — for example; they got injured in a car accident while driving with friends.

“You may look at a kid and think, ‘On the list of possible contributing factors would be substance use. I’m going to spend some time talking about that,’” Gonzalez explains. “But that’s different from [screening]. Now you’re taking a history, and that’s more in-depth.”

What Are Some Signs of Teen Substance Use Providers Should Look For?

Whether or not a child presents with symptoms of substance abuse shouldn’t be the determining factor for screening. Instead, practices should set up their system to ensure every teenager is screened at least once a year, Dr. Gonzalez says.

You should use your clinical judgment when considering fact-finding or any screening outside that schedule.

Keep in mind:

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in five teens has misused prescription medications.
  • Approximately 21% of high school seniors have reported using marijuana in the past month, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
  • Kids who experience behavioral health issues, such as depression and anxiety, are more likely to use nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs.
  • A history of trauma and family members with substance use disorder are significant risk factors for teen substance use.

What Are the Recommended Substance Abuse Screening Tools for Teens?

According to the AAP policy statement on screening adolescents for drug and alcohol use, only 50 to 86% of pediatricians screen their teenage patients, and many of them didn’t use a validated tool, opting instead to rely on “clinical impressions.”

In response to this statistic, Gonzalez says: “A validated screening tool is just a better detector than we are. I can’t tell by looking at a kid. The existing [screeners] do not take much time, and much of it can be done by rooming staff, like a medical assistant.”

The AAP doesn’t recommend one specific screener, but Gonzalez is partial to the Screening to Brief Intervention (S2BI) Tool, which takes about two minutes. If any responses require follow-up, then the CRAFFT questionnaire, which takes five minutes, can be a good guide.

To elicit the most honest response, Gonzalez says you should allow patients to answer the screener away from parents and remind them their answers will be confidential. But you should also understand the limits of provider confidentiality for kids within your specific state.

Ultimately, screening aims to ensure substance abuse in teens is “talked about more and thought about more,” Gonzalez says. “It’s just one means to make sure it doesn’t get missed. Resources and other challenges can arise around intervention and referral, but not asking is not going to help.”

Subscribe to our M-F newsletter
Thank you for subscribing! Welcome to The Nursing Beat!
Please enter your email address