Panel Recommends All Adults Be Screened for Illicit Drug Use

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The next time you visit a doctor, he or she may want to know more than what medications you take or if you consume alcohol.

An influential national panel of health experts is recommending for the first time that U.S. doctors screen all adult patients for illicit drug use, including the nonmedical use of opioids and other prescription drugs. “Nonmedical” means the use of a friend’s or relative’s prescription or buying medications off the street. It can also mean using a legal medication more frequently or in higher doses than prescribed.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concluded with “moderate certainty” that screening for illicit drug use would be beneficial because it would lead to a more accurate diagnosis and treatment for substance abuse.

Screening typically involves questions about drug use and frequency. This can include questions on routine intake forms or asking patients directly when they visit with a healthcare provider. Screening does not include drug testing, although nothing would stop a doctor from ordering such tests.


“Illicit drug use can have a devastating impact on individuals and families,” said task force co-vice chair Karina Davidson, PhD, a professor of behavioral medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University. “Clinicians can help by screening their adult patients and connecting people who use illicit drugs to the care they need to get better.”

About 11.5% of Americans age 18 years or older reported using cannabis or illicit drugs in a national survey. Illicit drug use is more common in young adults ages 18 to 25 years (24.2%) than in older adults (9.5%).  About one in five illicit drug users reported the nonmedical use of psychotherapeutic drugs, including opioids, pain relievers, or other medications. Less than 8% reported using cocaine, hallucinogens, or inhalants.

Although illicit drug use is relatively common among adolescents (7.9%) aged 12 to 17, the task force said there was not enough evidence to support screening for Americans under the age of 18.

“We want to help prevent illicit drug use in teens, so we’re calling for more research on the benefits of screening,” said task force member Carol Mangione, MD, chief of general internal medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Clinicians should continue to use their professional judgement to determine what’s best for their teen patients.”

The task force’s draft report is available for public comment through September 9. After the task force reviews the comments, it will issue a final report. The panel’s recommendations are not mandatory for healthcare providers, but like many federal guidelines – such as the 2016 CDC opioid guideline -- they could be adopted as a “standard of care” by medical associations and healthcare systems.  Some already recommend that providers routinely screen their patients about illicit drug use.

AG’s Call for Weakening of HIPAA Laws

Federal laws that have long protected the privacy of patients undergoing addiction treatment may also be changing. The National Association of Attorneys General wants Congress to end regulations that prevent doctors from sharing information about their patients’ addiction treatment histories.

In a letter recently sent to congressional leaders, 39 state attorneys general called on Congress to “replace the cumbersome, out-of-date, privacy rules” contained in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). One section of the law – known as 42 CFR Part 2 – sets strict rules about disclosing patient records for substance abuse treatment.

“These privacy rules were created more than 40 years ago in a time of intense stigma surrounding substance use disorder treatment. They were created to assure patients that they would not face adverse legal or civil consequences when seeking treatment by protecting confidentiality of substance use disorder patient records,” the AG’s said.

“Unfortunately, they now serve to perpetuate that stigma, as the principle underlying these rules is that substance use disorder treatment is shameful and records of it should be withheld from other treatment providers in ways that we do not withhold records of treatment of other chronic diseases. While maintaining confidentiality is imperative to encouraging individuals to seek and obtain treatment, the inability to share records among providers can burden coordination of care, potentially resulting in harm to the patient.”

Two bills under consideration in Congress, the Overdose Prevention and Patient Safety Act and the Protecting Jessica Grubb’s Legacy Act would amend 42 CFR Part 2 to allow for addiction treatment records to be shared. The bills have been endorsed by over 40 national healthcare organizations, including the American Hospital Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.