Cite this article

NIDA. (2012, March 1). Resource Guide: Screening for Drug Use in General Medical Settings. Retrieved from

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This Resource Guide is intended to provide clinicians serving adult population* in general medical settings with the screening tools and procedures necessary to conduct screening, brief intervention, and/or treatment referral for patients who may have or be at risk of developing a substance use disorder. Screening and brief intervention provides an opportunity for clinicians to intervene early and potentially enhance medical care by increasing awareness of the likely impact of substance use on a patient’s overall health.

Why screen for drug use (including tobacco, alcohol, illicit [i.e., illegal], and nonmedical use of prescription drugs)?

  • Drug use (licit or illicit) is harmful and has many adverse consequences.
    Multiple physical health, emotional, and interpersonal problems are associated with illicit drug use. Cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, HIV/AIDS, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, as well as financial difficulties and legal, work, and family problems can all result from or be exacerbated by drug abuse.1
  • The use of illicit drugs is more common than you might think.
    In 2010, an estimated 22.6 million Americans aged 12 or older (~8.9 percent of the population) were current illicit drug users, which means they had used an illicit drug during the month prior to the survey. About 1 in 5 Americans aged 18-25 used illicit drugs in the past month.2
  • Only a fraction of individuals who need specialty treatment for drug or alcohol addiction actually receive it each year.
    In 2010, of the 23.1 million persons aged 12 or older who needed specialized treatment for a drug or alcohol problem, most—almost 21 million—did not receive it.3 Routine screening for substance use disorders could alter this statistic and get more people the help they need.
  • Using screening and brief intervention procedures in general medical settings can make a difference in drug use behaviors. 
    Research has demonstrated that screening and brief intervention can promote significant reductions in alcohol and tobacco use.4,5,6 A growing body of literature also suggests benefits of screening and brief intervention for illicit or nonmedical prescription drug use as well.7,8

How do you screen and provide feedback?

As a medical provider, you are an important figure in your patients' lives. In a very short conversation, you have a wonderful opportunity to let your patients know if and how their drug use may be putting their health at risk.

The Five A's of Intervention (Ask, Advise, Assess, Assist, Arrange) can be a useful framework for encouraging patients to quit smoking and may also be useful for screening and providing feedback related to other drug use.

ASK – Screening is the first A because it asks one or more questions related to drug use.

ADVISE – The second A involves strong direct personal advice by the provider to the patient to make a change, if it is clinically indicated.

ASSESS – The third A refers to determining how willing a patient is to change his or her behavior after hearing the provider's advice.

ASSIST – The fourth A refers to helping the patient make a change if he/she appears ready.

ARRANGE – The final A is to refer the patient for further assessment and treatment, if appropriate, and to set up followup appointments.

If you are not already doing so, we encourage you to incorporate drug use screening and brief intervention into your practice. The remainder of this Resource Guide provides detailed information to begin screening for:

alcoholic drinkAlcohol
Image of pillsNonmedical Prescription Drug Use
Illegal drugs, marijuana for exampleIllicit Drugs

* This resource guide does not specifically address the unique considerations that must be taken into account when screening adolescents or pregnant women.