Addressing adolescent substance use in an urban pediatric federally qualified health center

J Subst Abuse Treat. 2022 Apr;135:108653. doi: 10.1016/j.jsat.2021.108653. Epub 2021 Oct 28.


Objective: Screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment (SBIRT) is a systematic approach to identification and intervention for individuals at risk for substance use disorders. Prior research indicates that SBIRT is underutilized in pediatric primary care. Yet few studies have examined procedures for identifying and addressing substance use in clinics that serve publicly insured adolescents (i.e., federally qualified health centers [FQHC]). This descriptive, multi-method study assessed adolescent substance use frequency and provider perspectives to inform SBIRT implementation in an urban pediatric FQHC in California.

Methods: A medical record review assessed substance use frequency and correlates among publicly insured adolescents aged 12-17 years who completed a well-child visit in pediatric primary care between 2014 and 2017 (N = 2252). Data on substance use (i.e., alcohol, illicit drugs, and tobacco) were from a health assessment tool mandated by Medicaid. Semi-structured interviews with 12 providers (i.e., pediatricians, nurse practitioners, behavioral health clinicians) elicited information about the current clinic workflow for adolescent substance use and barriers and facilitators to SBIRT implementation.

Results: Of 1588 adolescents who completed the assessment (70.5%), 6.8% reported current substance use. Self-reported use was highest among non-Hispanic Black (15.2%) adolescents and those with co-occurring depressive symptoms (14.4%). Provider-reported challenges to implementing SBIRT included a lack of space for confidential screening and a lack of referral options. Providers favored implementing technology-based tools such as tablets for adolescent pre-visit screening and electronic medical record-based decision support to facilitate brief intervention and treatment referrals.

Conclusions: This study fills a substantial research gap by examining factors that impede and support SBIRT implementation in pediatric FQHC settings. Successful SBIRT implementation in these settings could significantly reduce the unmet need for substance use treatment among uninsured and publicly insured adolescents. Pediatric primary care and urgent care providers perceived SBIRT to be feasible, and health information and digital technologies may facilitate the integration of SBIRT into clinic workflows. Ensuring confidentiality for screening and expanding referral options for adolescents in need of community-based addiction treatment are also critical to increasing SBIRT uptake.

Keywords: Adolescent; Depression; Federally qualified health center; SBIRT; Substance use.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Crisis Intervention
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening / methods
  • Primary Health Care* / methods
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / prevention & control