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Brief Report   |    
How Are Substance Use Disorders Addressed in VA Psychiatric and Primary Care Settings? Results of a National Survey
Stephen W. Tracy, M.A.; Jodie A. Trafton, Ph.D.; Kenneth R. Weingardt, Ph.D.; Eangelica G. Aton, B.S.; Keith Humphreys, Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services 2007; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.58.2.266
Abstract

Objective: This study examined interventions for substance use disorders within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) psychiatric and primary care settings. Methods: National random samples of 83 VA psychiatry program directors and 102 primary care practitioners were surveyed by telephone. The survey assessed screening practices to detect substance use disorders, protocols for treating patients with substance use disorders, and available treatments for substance use disorders. Results: Respondents reported extensive contact with patients with substance use problems. However, a majority reported being ill equipped to treat substance use disorders themselves; they usually referred such patients to specialty substance use disorder treatment programs. Conclusions: Offering fewer specialty substance use disorder services within the VA may be problematic: providers can refer patients to specialty programs only if such programs exist. Caring for veterans with substance use disorders may require increasing the capacity of and establishing new specialty programs or expanding the ability of psychiatric programs and primary care practitioners to provide such care. (Psychiatric Services 58:266-269, 2007)

Abstract Teaser
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The authors are affiliated with the Program Evaluation and Resource Center, Department of Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, 795 Willow Road (MPD-152), Menlo Park, CA 94025 (e-mail: stephen.tracy@va.gov).

In fiscal year (FY) 2004 more than 625,000 patients diagnosed as having a substance use disorder received care in the Veteran's Health Administration (VHA) (1). Over the past decade the number of VA patients diagnosed as having substance use disorders has increased steadily (1), while the number of specialized VA substance use disorder treatment programs has decreased by 45%, from 389 programs in FY 1994 to 215 programs in FY 2003 (2). Changes in staffing for VA substance use disorder services mirrored the aforementioned programmatic changes. Specifically, the total number of staff for substance use disorder treatment in the VA system in FY 2003 (N=2,427) is approximately one half of that employed in FY 1994 (N=4,718) (2).

The combination of decreased availability of specialized substance use disorder treatment and increased need for such treatment highlights the increasing importance of exploiting opportunities for interventions for substance use disorders in nonspecialty treatment settings. Given the recent development and validation of protocols of substance use disorder treatment for use by psychiatry and primary care, it is possible that psychiatry and primary care have assumed a greater role in treating patients with substance use disorders. Nevertheless, the extent to which psychiatry and primary care providers offer addiction treatments is unknown. To determine whether patients have adequate access to treatment for substance use disorders, it is necessary to investigate the amount of care for substance use disorders currently available in psychiatry and primary care.

Studies indicate that more than half of all veterans seen in psychiatry programs and 29% of veterans who access health care have a substance use disorder (3,4). VA substance use disorder treatment is effective in reducing alcohol and other drug use and, to a lesser extent, related physical, psychological, legal, and social problems. Treatment is associated with increased employment and reduced health care costs (5,6,7,8,9), underscoring the importance of availability of substance use disorder treatment for afflicted patients. Effective addiction treatment may consist of psychosocial services, medication, or both (10). Within this article, we present results of a national survey examining the extent to which psychiatry programs and primary care practitioners are able to detect and treat substance use disorders. Specifically, we examined rates of prescribing of guideline-recommended medications for substance use disorders and the types of psychosocial services provided in these settings. If the reduction in specialty treatment programs has not been compensated for by a systematic increase in substance use disorder treatment offered in psychiatry and primary care clinics, it raises concerns that substance use disorders are going untreated.

To obtain a representative sample of psychiatry programs, psychiatry directors were contacted from a random sample of 100 VA medical facilities, drawn from the VA Medical Facilities Address Listing, which contains listings for all VA medical facilities; 17 facilities had no psychiatry program and thus were not surveyed. Directors of the remaining 83 psychiatry programs were surveyed by telephone between October 2003 and February 2004; all proposed interviews were completed (100% response rate).

The survey assessed the following: screening practices used to detect substance use disorders (for example, whether the program provides ongoing screening for substance use), estimated percentage of patients with substance use disorder, protocol for treating patients with a substance use disorder (for example, no protocol, treat substance use disorders within the psychiatry program, refer patients to a VA specialty substance use disorder program, or refer patients to a community treatment program), and available treatments specific to substance use disorders (for example, whether the program offered group therapy, individual therapy, case management, or contingency contracting for patients with a substance use disorder).

A national sample of 102 primary care practitioners was surveyed by telephone between October 2003 and December 2003; all proposed interviews were completed (100% response rate). To obtain a representative sample of primary care practitioners, respondents were selected through a stratified sampling procedure that ensured participation by primary care practitioners from all 21 VA regional service networks and from three types of VA facilities: community-based outpatient clinics (27 respondents, or 26%), VA medical centers located in large urban areas (42 respondents, or 41%), and VA medical centers located in rural areas (30 respondents, or 29%). Only providers who were currently following a panel of VA primary care patients completed the survey. Almost all respondents were physicians (97 respondents, or 95%); the remainder were nurse practitioners (three respondents, or 3%), a physician's assistant (one respondent, or 1%), and a registered nurse recruited at a community based outpatient clinic that did not currently have a physician on staff (one respondent, or 1%).

The survey assessed the following: screening practices used to detect substance use disorders (for example, whether the practitioner provides ongoing screening for substance use), number of patients treated in the past month with substance use disorders, protocol for treating patients with substance use disorder (for example, no protocol in place or the practitioner treats substance use disorders, refers patient to another provider within primary care, or refers patient to a specialty substance use disorder program), and treatment specific to substance use disorders that is available to veterans (that is, whether the practitioner provides ongoing counseling for substance use disorders and how much time is spent on counseling for substance use disorders). The psychiatry and primary care surveys were both part of a government-mandated study of service provision for substance use disorders within the VA; thus these surveys were deemed to be exempt from institutional review.

Prescription data for patients with a diagnosis of a substance use disorder and visits to psychiatry, primary care, or specialty treatment programs for substance use disorders were gathered from the VA National Pharmacy Benefits Database.

Psychiatry directors estimated that a mean±SD of 41%±17% of their patients had a substance use disorder. This estimate is less than the 58% rate identified in other research on veteran patients in psychiatry programs (4). Furthermore, 51 psychiatry programs (61%) provided ongoing screening for substance use.

A vast majority of psychiatry directors (66 respondents, or 80%) indicated that their protocol for treating patients with substance use disorders involves referral to a specialty substance use disorder treatment program, while concurrently treating other psychiatric disorders in their program. Seventeen psychiatry directors (20%) indicated that their staff were able to take the primary responsibility for treating both substance use disorders and psychiatric problems.

Psychiatry programs provided limited treatment services for substance use disorders. A total of 35 (42%) employed a staff member certified in addiction treatment. Twenty-eight (34%) offered group therapy for substance use disorders, 28 (34%) offered individual therapy for substance use disorders, 33 (40%) offered additional case management for substance use disorders, and nine (11%) offered contingency contracting. The 17 programs (20%) that did not routinely refer patients to specialty substance use disorder clinics were better equipped to treat patients with dual diagnoses than the 66 programs (80%) that referred patients for specialty substance use disorder treatment. Specifically, the programs that did not routinely refer patients to specialty substance use disorder clinics were more likely than those that did not refer patients to such clinics to employ a staff member certified in addiction treatment (ten respondents, or 59%, compared with 25 respondents, or 38%), offer group therapy for substance use disorders (14 respondents, or 82%, compared with 14 respondents, or 21%), offer individual therapy for substance use disorders (14 respondents, or 82%, compared with 14 respondents, or 21%), offer case management for patients with substance use disorders (nine respondents, or 53%, compared with 24 respondents, or 36%), and offer contingency contracting (four respondents, or 24%, compared with five respondents, or 8%).

In the psychiatry programs prescriptions for medications specific to substance use disorders for patients with such disorders were low, even though most psychiatry programs (70 respondents, or 84%) employed one or more physicians (mean of 5.7±2.4 physicians). Of the 82,036 patients diagnosed as having a substance use disorder in FY 2003 who received only psychiatric care, only 3,772 (4.6%) received a prescription for disulfiram or naltrexone. In comparison, of the 86,291 patients receiving specialty substance use disorder treatment, 12,229 (14.2%) were given prescriptions for disulfiram or naltrexone. Despite the significant presence of physicians in psychiatry programs, patients in psychiatry programs were three times less likely than those in specialty treatment programs to receive medications specific to substance use disorders.

Primary care practitioners reported treating a mean of 215±135 patients in the past month, of which they estimated 9%±8% had a current substance use disorder. These estimates are considerably lower than the actual rate of 29% among veterans who use VA health care (3). Furthermore, 62 primary care practitioners (62%) stated they had not monitored substance use in an ongoing fashion (for example, urinalysis for drug abuse) for even a single patient in the past month.

When primary care practitioners detect patients with substance use disorders, they typically refer such patients to specialty treatment programs. Specifically, 59 primary care practitioners (59%) indicated that their typical approach to managing patients with substance use disorder involves referral to an outside mental health or specialty program; 75 (75%) reported making at least one such referral during the past month, and 27 (27%) indicated that they usually refer patients with substance use disorders to another provider within the primary care clinic. Fewer still (12 respondents, or 12%) indicated that they typically provide specific treatment services for substance use disorder themselves. The typical primary care practitioner in this category reported providing such treatment services to three patients in the past month, which was less than 2% of their patient caseload.

Almost all primary care practitioners (90 respondents, or 90%) reported telling at least one patient in the past month how substance abuse affects physical health. However, more intensive interventions for managing patients with substance use disorders were rarely provided. For example, 34 (34%) indicated that they had not provided ongoing counseling to any patient with a substance use disorder during the previous month. Among the 66 (66%) who reported providing ongoing counseling in the past month, the modal number of patients counseled was two, which was less than 1% of their patient caseload. Those who provided ongoing counseling reported being able to devote only small amounts of time to this activity: 42 (42%) spent less than five minutes per patient on counseling, and only 15 (15%) spent ten minutes or more per patient on counseling.

Of the 141,927 VA patients diagnosed as having a substance use disorder in FY 2003 who received all of their health care in the primary care setting, only 206 received a prescription for any substance use disorder-specific medication; this is less than one quarter of 1%. For substance use disorders, patients who were treated in primary care were more than 28 times less likely than the patients in specialty treatment programs to receive substance use disorder-specific medications.

Contraction of specialty treatment programs for substance use disorders is not necessarily problematic if a health care system is simultaneously expanding screening and intervention options in nonspecialty settings. Accordingly, this study examined the extent to which VA psychiatry programs and primary care practitioners detect and treat substance use disorders. We found that psychiatry programs and primary care practitioners typically underestimated the prevalence of substance use disorders among their patients. Comparison with known rates of substance use disorders indicates that psychiatry programs may not detect substance use disorders as much as one-third of the time and primary care practitioners fail to detect substance use disorders in two-thirds of patients with these disorders. These findings replicate other work conducted in VA and non-VA samples that suggest that substance use disorders are underdetected by health care providers (11).

Even when substance use disorders were detected, intervention was the exception rather than the rule. It is worth noting that studies that used patient reports and audiotapes of doctor-patient interactions have also shown that primary care practitioners do not routinely offer evidence-based care for substance use disorders (12) and rarely give advice to change substance use behavior (13). As psychiatry and primary care visits are important opportunities for initiating interventions to address substance use, increased use of screening and diagnostic tools should be encouraged in these settings. Toward this end, the VA has recently mandated annual screening for alcohol use disorders with the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, making it a performance measure in primary care (10).

We found that when substance use disorders are detected in psychiatry and primary care, patients were usually referred to specialty treatment programs for substance use disorders. Notably, an absence of specialty care for substance use disorders at the treating facility did not influence the standard treatment protocols in psychiatry programs for substance use disorders. This would indicate that the reduction in specialty substance use disorder treatment has not been compensated for by a systematic increase in substance use disorder treatment offered in psychiatry and primary care clinics and raises concerns that substance use disorders are increasingly going untreated.

Two obvious solutions to the problem of untreated substance use disorders are available. One is to increase specialty programming for substance use disorders. Alternatively, increasing substance use disorder treatment in psychiatry programs and primary care would remedy the gap in treatment availability. This survey suggests that this second option cannot be accomplished without increasing appropriate resources. Only 42% of psychiatry programs had a staff member certified in addiction treatment, whereas more than 50% of patients in these programs have substance use disorders. Thirty-seven percent of programs did not offer any treatment services for substance use disorders. Primary care practitioners were unlikely to detect substance use disorders, and one-third did not provide brief counseling to even a single patient. Psychiatry and primary care providers will require additional training, time, and staff resources to provide quality care for substance use disorders to patients without access to specialty treatment programs.

Very little substance use disorder treatment is occurring in VA psychiatry and primary care settings, and these providers typically rely on specialty care. As VA specialty services for substance use disorders continue to contract, a problem may arise: providers can refer patients to specialty programs only if such programs exist. Caring for veterans with substance use disorders may require increasing the capacity of existing specialty programs, establishing new specialty programs, or expanding the ability of psychiatrists and primary care practitioners to provide such care. Because VA psychiatry programs and primary care practitioners serve as a critical channel by which patients are directed into specialized treatment for substance use disorders, proper screening and detection of substance use disorders is essential at these clinics.

The VA Mental Health Strategic Healthcare Group provided support to the Program Evaluation and Resource Center for this study. The authors thank Thomas Holohan, M.D., for his comments on an earlier version of this article. Views expressed in this article are the authors' and do not necessarily reflect official VA policy positions.

The authors report no competing interests.

Dalton A, Saweikis M, McKellar JD: Health Services for VA Substance Use Disorder Patients: Comparison of Utilization Fiscal Years 2005, 2004, 2003 and 2002. Palo Alto, Calif, Program Evaluation and Resource Center, 2004. Available at www.chce.research.med.va.gov/pdf/2005yellowbook.pdf
 
Tracy SW, Trafton JA, Humphreys K: The Department of Veterans Affairs Substance Abuse Treatment System: Results of the 2003 Drug and Alcohol Program Survey. Palo Alto, Calif, VA Program Evaluation and Resource Center and Center for Health Care Evaluation, 2004. Available at www.chce.research.med.va.gov/pdf/2004DAPS.pdf
 
Lambert MT, Griffith JM, Hendrickse W: Characteristics of patients with substance abuse diagnoses on a general psychiatry unit in a VA medical center. Psychiatric Services 47:1104-1107, 1996
 
VA's Alcoholism Screening Procedures. Pub no HRD-91-71. Washington, DC, United States General Accounting Office, 1991
 
Otilingam PG, Ritsher JB, Finney JW, et al: Outcomes Monitoring for Patients With Substance Use Disorders: V. Cohort 3 Patients' Characteristics, Treatment, and Treatment Outcomes. Palo Alto, Calif, Department of Veterans Affairs Program Evaluation and Resource Center, VA Health Services Research and Development Center for Health Care Evaluation, Mental Health Strategic Healthcare Group, Apr 2002
 
Ouimette PC, Finney JW, Moos RH: Twelve-step and cognitive-behavioral treatment for substance abuse: a comparison of treatment effectiveness. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 65:230-240, 1997
 
Ritsher JB, Moos RH, Finney JW: Relationship of treatment orientation and continuing care to remission among substance abuse patients. Psychiatric Services 53:595-601, 2002
 
Humphreys K, Hamilton EG, Moos RH: Substance Abuse Treatment in the Department of Veterans Affairs: System Structure, Patients, and Treatment Activities. Palo Alto, Calif, VA Health Services Research and Development Center for Health Care Evaluation, 1996
 
Humphreys K, Moos RH: Can encouraging substance abuse patients to participate in self-help groups reduce demand for health care? A quasi-experimental study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 25:711-716, 2001
 
Substance Use Disorders Clinical Practice Guidelines. Washington, DC, Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Quality and Performance, 2004. Available at www.oqp.med.va.gov/cpg/sud/sudbase.htm. Accessed in 2004
 
Kirchner JE, Owen RR, Norquist C, et al: Diagnosis and management of substance use disorders among inpatients with schizophrenia. Psychiatric Services 49:82-85, 1998
 
Bradley KA, Epler AJ, Bush KR, et al: Alcohol-related discussions during general medicine appointments of male VA patients who screen positive for at-risk drinking. Journal of General Internal Medicine 17:315-326, 2002
 
Bradley K, Kivlahan D, Achtmeyer C, et al: VA outpatients with at-risk drinking not receiving evidence-based care 2003. Presented at the annual Department of Veterans Affairs Quality Enhancement Research Initiative (QUERI), Alexandria, Va, Apr 9-12, 2003
 
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References

Dalton A, Saweikis M, McKellar JD: Health Services for VA Substance Use Disorder Patients: Comparison of Utilization Fiscal Years 2005, 2004, 2003 and 2002. Palo Alto, Calif, Program Evaluation and Resource Center, 2004. Available at www.chce.research.med.va.gov/pdf/2005yellowbook.pdf
 
Tracy SW, Trafton JA, Humphreys K: The Department of Veterans Affairs Substance Abuse Treatment System: Results of the 2003 Drug and Alcohol Program Survey. Palo Alto, Calif, VA Program Evaluation and Resource Center and Center for Health Care Evaluation, 2004. Available at www.chce.research.med.va.gov/pdf/2004DAPS.pdf
 
Lambert MT, Griffith JM, Hendrickse W: Characteristics of patients with substance abuse diagnoses on a general psychiatry unit in a VA medical center. Psychiatric Services 47:1104-1107, 1996
 
VA's Alcoholism Screening Procedures. Pub no HRD-91-71. Washington, DC, United States General Accounting Office, 1991
 
Otilingam PG, Ritsher JB, Finney JW, et al: Outcomes Monitoring for Patients With Substance Use Disorders: V. Cohort 3 Patients' Characteristics, Treatment, and Treatment Outcomes. Palo Alto, Calif, Department of Veterans Affairs Program Evaluation and Resource Center, VA Health Services Research and Development Center for Health Care Evaluation, Mental Health Strategic Healthcare Group, Apr 2002
 
Ouimette PC, Finney JW, Moos RH: Twelve-step and cognitive-behavioral treatment for substance abuse: a comparison of treatment effectiveness. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 65:230-240, 1997
 
Ritsher JB, Moos RH, Finney JW: Relationship of treatment orientation and continuing care to remission among substance abuse patients. Psychiatric Services 53:595-601, 2002
 
Humphreys K, Hamilton EG, Moos RH: Substance Abuse Treatment in the Department of Veterans Affairs: System Structure, Patients, and Treatment Activities. Palo Alto, Calif, VA Health Services Research and Development Center for Health Care Evaluation, 1996
 
Humphreys K, Moos RH: Can encouraging substance abuse patients to participate in self-help groups reduce demand for health care? A quasi-experimental study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 25:711-716, 2001
 
Substance Use Disorders Clinical Practice Guidelines. Washington, DC, Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Quality and Performance, 2004. Available at www.oqp.med.va.gov/cpg/sud/sudbase.htm. Accessed in 2004
 
Kirchner JE, Owen RR, Norquist C, et al: Diagnosis and management of substance use disorders among inpatients with schizophrenia. Psychiatric Services 49:82-85, 1998
 
Bradley KA, Epler AJ, Bush KR, et al: Alcohol-related discussions during general medicine appointments of male VA patients who screen positive for at-risk drinking. Journal of General Internal Medicine 17:315-326, 2002
 
Bradley K, Kivlahan D, Achtmeyer C, et al: VA outpatients with at-risk drinking not receiving evidence-based care 2003. Presented at the annual Department of Veterans Affairs Quality Enhancement Research Initiative (QUERI), Alexandria, Va, Apr 9-12, 2003
 
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