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Studies Show the Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment Approach to Prevention of Substance Use Disorders Works for Adolescents

Rockville, Md.  –  Does SBIRT work for young people? SBIRT stands for screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment for drug misuse, and researchers have found SBIRT is effective for adults. Now Abt Global has assembled a supplement for the Journal of Adolescent Health that compiles new research on whether SBIRT helps adolescents. The answer: it does.

Understanding this research, funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, is critical for developing sound, evidence-based policies and effective support for young people at risk for substance use disorders (SUDs). Some of the main takeaways from the studies  featured in the supplement include:

  • In a randomized controlled trial, adjusting for patient characteristics, the SBIRT group had lower odds of substance use diagnoses and lower odds of inpatient hospitalization compared with usual care. And the beneficial effects on substance use and healthcare needs may persist into young adulthood.
  • Community-based SBIRT is associated with positive outcomes—both reduced risky substance use and improved education and employment—that relate to longer-term positive youth development.
  • Fewer than half of the 225 pediatric endocrinologists and rheumatologists in a study routinely screened adolescent patients for substance use, though many have concerns about the impacts of alcohol and marijuana use on their patients. The doctors agreed that marijuana isn’t standardized enough to use as a medication and disagreed on marijuana’s pharmaceutical potential.
  • School-based health centers offer a good setting for screening and detecting adolescents at risk for SUDs. Those at risk need follow-up contact with a behavioral health care provider. Additional treatment may be warranted for females, adolescents with previous sexual activity, and those at risk for SUDs who are not at risk for depression or have a suicidal history. (Those at risk of depression or with a suicidal history already engage more with behavioral health care providers.)

In addition to the findings, several recommendations emerged:

  • Provide education and training to health professionals and other youth-serving providers to normalize conversations about substance use as part of overall adolescent health and well-being
  • Include early intervention in the continuum of care for youth to address substance use before a crisis occurs
  • Involve youth and peers in the development of programs to improve the likelihood that the approaches and models resonate and are culturally appropriate.

“These new studies strongly suggest that SBIRT is an evidence-based approach to intervene that helps young people,” said Project Director Kaitlin Sheedy, an Abt senior associate. “And it can work wherever we find young people, from schools to juvenile justice programs to doctors’ offices. Properly trained staff just need to catch them where they are.”

For more information about this topic, register for our October 18th webinar.

Contributors to the volume are affiliated with the following institutions:

Abt Global; Audacia Consulting; Boston Children’s Hospital; Boston University School of Public Health; Brandeis University Institute for Behavioral Health; David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; Friends Research Institute; Harvard Medical School; Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research; King County Department of Community and Human Services; Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation; Reclaiming Futures; Seattle and King County Department of Public Health; Seattle Children’s Research Institute; The Permanente Medical Group; University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center; and YouthBuild USA.


Note: This summary has been updated to omit findings from one of the articles, which had very low participant response rates to surveys and focus groups.

About Abt Global
Abt Global is a global consulting and research firm that combines data and bold thinking to improve the quality of people's lives. We partner with clients and communities to advance equity and innovation—from creating scalable digital solutions and combatting infectious disease, to mitigating climate change and evaluating programs for measurable social impact.

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