Routine drug screening should be done in primary care settings: Study

New study recommends screening for drug use in primary care settings.

Amy Wallace
Researchers at UCLA are recommending routine drug screening for patients in primary care settings in areas in East Los Angeles and Tijuana, Mexico. frolicsomepl/PixaBay
Researchers at UCLA are recommending routine drug screening for patients in primary care settings in areas in East Los Angeles and Tijuana, Mexico. frolicsomepl/PixaBay

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 21 (UPI) -- A new study by UCLA is calling for routine drug testing in primary care settings in areas where misuse of drugs is prevalent.

Researchers found that 19.4 percent of people answering a computerized self-administered survey in community clinics in East Los Angeles admitted to moderate-to-high drug use. In Tijuana, Mexico, that number was 5.7 percent. Both findings were considerably higher than the results from household surveys reported.


Results showed that Los Angeles patients born in Mexico were twice as likely, and in the United States were six times more likely, of being moderate-to-high drug users than Tijuana patients born in Mexico.

"Prevailing expectations were that alcohol would be the major problem and drug use would be lower," Dr. Lillian Gelberg, the study's lead investigator and a professor of family medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said in a press release. "But what we found was that the rate of problem drug use -- that is, moderate-to-high use -- was very similar to problem alcohol use."

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The study found that moderate-to-high alcohol use was 15.2 percent in East Los Angeles compared to 6.5 percent in Tijuana, and moderate-to-high tobacco use was 20.4 percent in East Los Angeles compared to 16.2 percent in Tijuana.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Substance Use and Misuse, was part of a larger study of an intervention that showed the benefits of counseling in primary care settings, which could aid in reducing drug abuse and addiction.

The study consisted of 2,507 adults in Los Angeles and 2,890 in Tijuana who were eligible for the World Health Organization's Alcohol, Smoking and Substance Involvement Screening Test. Participants anonymously reported substance abuse using a computer tablet with a touch screen while in the clinic waiting room. They were questioned about healthy eating, exercise and chronic illness along with drug use.

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"We aren't using interviews and the patients are filling it in on their own," Gelberg, who is also a professor of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said. "We developed this program so that it would work even for patients of low-literacy levels, asking one question at a time and allowing for an audio option with headsets according to patient's preference. For instance, it would ask 'did you use cocaine in the last three months and a 'yes' or 'no' would light up on the screen.'"

The rates of drug use found were enough for researchers to recommend screening for drug, alcohol and tobacco use in routine primary care clinics on both sides of the border, according to Melvin Rico, clinical research coordinator in the UCLA Department of Family Medicine and field research coordinator of the study.

"Being able to reach a vulnerable population while waiting for a doctor is, I think very important," Rico said.

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