Assessing substance abuse treatment need: a statewide hospital emergency department study

Author(s): Rockett IRH, Putnam SL, Jia H, Smith GS


Study objective: Health care providers in hospital emergency departments rarely take substance abuse histories or assess associated treatment need. This study compares documentation of psychoactive drug-related diagnoses for adult ED patients in medical records with treatment need assessed through self-report, toxicologic screening, and Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-IV), criteria.

Methods: A statewide, 2-stage, probability sample survey was conducted in 7 Tennessee general hospital EDs from June 1996 to January 1997. Main outcome measures were the prevalence of diagnosed substance abuse problems, positive bioassay results, denied use, and treatment need. Sensitivity and multivariate analyses were conducted by using varied case definitions of treatment need.

Results: Thirty-one percent (95% confidence interval [CI] 27.3% to 34.7%) of screened ED patients (n=1,330) had positive test results for substance use. Their prevalence of denial of use in the 30 days before the survey ranged from 10% for alcohol (95% CI 5.7% to 14.3%) to 100% for phencyclidine. One percent of all ED patients (n=1,502) had a recorded diagnosis of substance abuse. By contrast, as many as 27% (95% CI 23.3% to 31.8%) were assessed as needing substance abuse treatment on the basis of a comprehensive case definition that accounted for denial and positive test results. A sensitivity analysis using other case definitions is also presented. For example, 4% (95% CI 2.8% to 5.3%) of patients met the very strict definition of DSM-IV current drug dependence only. Under the comprehensive case definition, TennCare patients (adjusted odds ratio [OR] 1.63; 95% CI 1.30 to 2.05) and Medicare patients (adjusted OR 2.50; 95% CI 1.34 to 4.65) showed excess treatment need relative to the privately insured. Excess need was also exhibited by patients reporting 1 or more prior ED visits in the past year (adjusted OR 1.62; 95% CI 1.13 to 2.31) and by patients taking 2 or more hours to reach the ED after the onset of injury or illness (adjusted OR 1.54; 95% CI 1.16 to 2.04). Treatment need was inversely associated with age. Irrespective of case definition, less than 10% of ED patients who needed substance abuse treatment were receiving such treatment.

Conclusion: EDs can be important venues for detecting persons in need of substance abuse treatment.

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