Background: Drug and alcohol abuse and dependence are the most prevalent causes of adolescent morbidity and mortality in the United States. Effective, accessible treatment for adolescents with substance abuse problems is urgently needed.
Objective: To conduct the first systematic evaluation of the quality of highly regarded adolescent substance abuse treatment programs in the United States.
Methods: An advisory panel of 22 experts defined 9 key elements of effective treatment for adolescent substance abuse based on a review of the literature. In-depth telephone and written surveys were conducted with 144 highly regarded adolescent substance abuse treatment programs identified by panel members and by public and private agencies. There was a 100% response rate to the initial interviews, and a 65% response rate to the follow-up surveys. The open-ended survey responses were coded by defining 5 components deemed to be crucial in addressing each of the 9 key elements, and quality scores were calculated overall and for each of the 9 key elements.
Results: Out of a possible total score of 45, the mean score was 23.8 and the median was 23. Top-quartile programs were not more likely to be accredited. The majority of programs scored at least 4 of a possible 5 on only 1 of the 9 key elements (qualified staff). The elements with the poorest-quality performance were assessment and treatment matching, engaging and retaining teens in treatment, gender and cultural competence, and treatment outcomes.
Conclusions: Most of the highly regarded programs we surveyed are not adequately addressing the key elements of effective adolescent substance abuse treatment. Expanded use of standardized assessment instruments, improved ability to engage and retain youths, greater attention to gender and cultural competence, and greater investment in scientific evaluation of treatment outcomes are among the most critical needs. Expanding awareness of effective elements in treating adolescents will lead the way to program improvement.