Primary Care Physicians Must Grasp Youth Drug Use Trends

Published July 12, 2019

Shifts in illicit substance use among American youth will compel primary care physicians to monitor new products and how they are used, according to a study by Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences researchers published in American Family Physician.

“Community physicians can be helpful in providing fact-based information for their adolescent patients.”
Professor of family medicine and research professor of psychiatry

“It is important to improve our understanding of adolescent substance use in order to better address the health needs and risk factors in this vulnerable population,” says Jessica A. Kulak, PhD, the paper’s lead author.

Aim Involves Integration of Care Services

A specialist, or someone outside of the primary care setting, has traditionally provided treatment for substance use disorder.

“Integration of care services may help to change societal norms around substance use — both by decreasing stigma associated with substance use, as well as increasing physicians’ preparedness, knowledge and confidence in preventing and intervening on patients’ substance experimentation and use,” Kulak says.

Kulak is now an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Dietetics at Buffalo State College.

She wrote the paper when she was a postdoctorate fellow at the Primary Care Research Institute in the Jacobs School’s Department of Family Medicine. Kulak received her doctorate in community health and health behavior from UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.

Conducted Literature Review of Studies

The types of illicit substances that American youth are using have changed drastically over the past decade, with decreases in alcohol use — including binge drinking — being offset by increases in e-cigarettes, marijuana and opioids.

“The increase in vaping is of concern, particularly the use of Juul, which delivers high concentrations of nicotine and may also be used with marijuana,” says paper co-author Kim Strong Griswold, MD, professor of family medicine and research professor of psychiatry.

“Community physicians can be helpful in providing fact-based information for their adolescent patients,” Griswold says.

Kulak and Griswold conducted a literature review of studies that cited the results from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and Monitoring the Future, two major data sources on the prevalence rates for substance use.

“Taken together, the results really underscored the shifts in societal norms for several substances,” Kulak says.

“For example, there have been decreases in society’s perception of how risky cannabis is, and as a result, use has increased,” she notes. “Similarly, youth who perceive low risk of using e-cigarettes, or low addiction potential, are more likely to use e-cigarettes.”

Risk Perceptions Influence Use of Substances

While it remains somewhat unclear, it seems logical that risk perceptions influence the use of other substances, including the non-medical use of prescription drugs, Kulak adds, mentioning codeine cough syrup mixed with soda or alcohol, a concoction known as “lean” or “Purple Drank.”

“The types of products and the ways in which they are used have changed drastically,” she says. “It is important for health care providers to remain up to date on emerging products and have some understanding of how they are used, and who they are used by, so as to better tailor prevention and intervention initiatives.”

Among the findings recently published research has uncovered:

  • e-cigarettes were the most commonly used nicotine-delivery product among high school students in 2017
  • approximately 27 percent of adolescents aged 13 to 18 who drink alcohol mix it with energy drinks
  • seventeen percent of adolescents have taken prescription drugs without a doctor’s prescription
  • for teens older than 15, hospitalizations for heroin and methadone poisoning increased 161 percent and 950 percent, respectively

Providers Must Adhere to Confidentiality Laws

“We need to have a better understanding of the risk and protective factors for this type of use and experimentation, particularly as it relates to the primary care system,” Kulak says.

In addition, physicians should be aware of state and federal confidentiality laws pertaining to minors, Griswold points out.

“Because adolescents may fear that their personal information may be divulged to parents or other authorities, confidentiality in adolescent health care is a significant concern,” she adds.