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Easier Way for Doctors to Identify Substance Abuse?

Study supports asking a simple question, rather than giving lengthy questionnaire

THURSDAY, Jan. 16, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- A single question may help doctors determine whether a patient has a drug or alcohol problem and the level of abuse, a new study suggests.

Keep it simple is the message from the study of nearly 300 people recruited from the Boston Medical Center primary care clinic.

"We found that single questions may be useful in both screening and preliminary assessment" of substance-use severity, lead author Dr. Richard Saitz, chair and professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, said in a university news release.

"Instead of extensive interviews or long questionnaires, which are a barrier to screening in primary care settings, this approach may make it much easier to identify and appropriately address unhealthy substance use," added Saitz.

The participants were asked how many times in the past year they had consumed five or more drinks in a day (men) and four or more drinks in a day (women).

They were also asked how many times in the past year they had used an illegal drug or used a prescription medicine for nonmedical reasons.

The alcohol-use screening question detected 88 percent of people with alcohol dependence. The drug-use question identified 97 percent of those with drug dependence, the researchers say. The results were similar to those achieved with longer screening tests, according to the study, published in the January issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Information about a drug or alcohol problem is especially useful if it can be obtained quickly at the time of screening. In general, determining a patient's risk and severity of drug or alcohol abuse has required questionnaires, some with more than 80 items with multiple response options, according to the study.

"We're moving from identifying the problem to being able to gauge, in a relatively quick and simple way, whether it is severe enough to warrant more urgent attention," Saitz said.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about substance abuse.


SOURCE: Boston University, news release, Jan. 13, 2014

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