Conference Coverage

Addressing adolescent substance use requires establishing consistent procedures



In addition to screening adolescent patients at least once a year for substance use, it’s important that pediatricians build relationships with other behavioral health providers and develop a strategy for ensuring that teens with substance use issues continue returning to your practice as their medical home, according to Lucien Gonzalez, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Dr. Lucien Gonzalez

In a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, held virtually this year, Dr. Gonzalez discussed some of the common challenges pediatricians face in appropriately screening, diagnosing, and managing or referring youth when it comes to substance use.

Substance use screening

One of these included picking the right assessment tool and frequency for screening patients for substance use. A number of validated tools are out there, including the Screening to Brief Intervention (S2BI) and CRAFFT Screening Tool for Adolescent Substance Abuse. Regardless of which screening tool providers choose, “the important thing is to use a tool that is validated in the pediatric population and ideally has frequency results in it,” Dr. Gonzalez said.

In terms of frequency, screening young people at least once a year is fairly standard, but it may be necessary to screen adolescents more often or to screen them at acute visits.

“As many of you who work with adolescents know, you can’t always rely on the yearly well child visit because after a certain age, you start to see drop-off,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “They often aren’t coming for well child visits, and they often are then only showing up for acute visits.”

That means doctors need to think about how their clinics operate, how often they see their teen patients, and other factors – including how much can happen in a single year of adolescence – to ensure that screening captures these patients at least once a year, but more if that works within the practice.

Screening vs. diagnosis

Dr. Gonzalez also addressed the difference between screening and diagnosis, a very familiar distinction to physicians in other areas of medicine but often a source of confusion in the area of substance use.

“Screening is the presumptive identification of unrecognized disease in apparently healthy people who don’t have symptoms, using assessments that can be used rapidly,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “When we move into the diagnostic realm, these are people who present with symptoms or they have positive results on our screening test prompting further investigation.”

Sonia Khan, MD, a pediatrician and the medical director of the substance use disorder counseling program in the department of health and human services in Fremont, Calif., who heard the talk, particularly appreciated this point about screening versus diagnosis.

“As soon as you get a hint that there’s a problem with the kid, you’re no longer screening. You’re doing diagnostic investigation,” Dr. Khan, also the human relations commissioner for the city of Fremont, Calif., said in an interview. “Screening is about the kids you don’t know about. It seems like a small point to make a big deal out of, but it’s not.”

Sometimes a screening tool can serve as an introductory interview guide when beginning a clinical investigation with a patient who already shows symptoms, but that doesn’t mean it’s a screen.

Dr. Gonzalez emphasized the importance of not prescreening.

“A prescreener looks at a kid and decides whether or not they need to be screened,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “We have research that demonstrates that that doesn’t work. Physicians are not good at determining this by eyeballing it, and it’s fraught with bias. Universal screening with a validated screening tool is what works.”

Again, the idea of confronting one’s own personal biases and how they could interfere with screening really resonated with Dr. Khan.

“When it comes to the prescreening, if you’re only screening the ones you [think you] need to screen, you’re introducing bias into your screening,” she said. “It’s usually judgmental. It’s important to focus on really getting the bias out of what you’re doing because it’s a field fraught with bias and expectations.”


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