All Adults Should Be Asked About Illicit Drug Use, Task Force Finds

By Kelly Burch 08/20/19

According to the task force, 10% of American adults have used illegal drugs in the past month.

adults being asked about illicit drug use
ID 114069615 © Nataly Mayak |

All adult patients in the U.S. should be asked about their illicit drug use, according to recommendations released this week by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. 

“Illicit drug use can have a devastating impact on individuals and families,” task force co-vice chair Karina Davidson said in a statement with the release of the recommendation, which is available here. “Clinicians can help by screening their adult patients and connecting people who use illicit drugs to the care they need to get better.”

According to the task force, 10% of American adults have used illegal drugs in the past month. If doctors ask about this and know about their patients’ drug use, they will be better able to deliver care and connect their patients with evidence-based treatments for drug use and abuse.

Dr. Gary LeRoy, president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told The Los Angeles Times that he has been screening patients for drug use for 10 years in his Dayton, Ohio practice.

“All of us should be keenly aware that on average, one in 10 of our patients are doing drugs—whether we ask them or not—and we’re not going to cause someone to use illicit drugs because we ask the question,” he said. “When you create an atmosphere of trust where you have safe conversations, they appreciate that you ask.”

LeRoy said that asking all patients about their drug use—of so-called street drugs and misuse of prescription medications—can help doctors get to know their patients better.

“They say, ‘Oh, I had no idea I already had these people in my practice,’” he said. “When I started asking these questions and providing the service, they came out of the woodwork.”

The task force considered recommending screenings for everyone in 2008, but opted not to. That has changed at least in part because there are now more proven ways to treat drug addiction, said UCLA internal medicine specialist and task force co-chair Dr. Carol Mangione.

Treatment & Prevention

Mangione said, “We don’t want to screen for something unless we know there’s an effective treatment. If you don’t have a treatment that’s effective for people who screen positive, you haven’t really helped.”

Today, people who talk to their doctor about illicit drug use can be connected with help that is proven to be efficient.

The recommendation only concerns adults ages 18 and older, but the task force said that doctors should consider asking teens about illicit drug use too.

“We want to help prevent illicit drug use in teens, so we’re calling for more research on the benefits of screening,” Mangione said in a statement. “Clinicians should continue to use their professional judgement to determine what’s best for their teen patients.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.