Assessing Problematic Substance Use in HIV Care: Which Questions Elicit Accurate Patient Disclosures?

Wynne Callon, Mary Catherine Beach, Somnath Saha, Geetanjali Chander, Ira B. Wilson, Michael Barton Laws, Victoria Sharp, Jonathan Cohn, Richard Moore, P. Todd Korthuis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND: Substance use is associated with higher rates of antiretroviral non-adherence and poor HIV outcomes. This study examined how HIV care providers assess substance use, and which questions elicit accurate patient disclosures. METHODS: We conducted a conversation analysis of audio-recorded encounters between 56 providers and 162 patients living with HIV (PLWH) reporting active substance use in post-encounter interviews (cocaine or heroin use in the past 30 days, > 4 days intoxicated in past 30 days, or AUDIT score ≥ 8). We assessed the frequency of substance use discussion, characterized the types of questions used by providers, and determined the frequency of accurate patient disclosure by question type. RESULTS: In 55 reports of active substance use, providers already knew about the use (n = 16) or patients disclosed unpromptednn = 39). Among the remaining 155 instances of substance use in which providers had the opportunity to elicit disclosure, 78 reports (50 %) of substance use were not discussed. Of the remaining 77 reports in which the provider asked about substance use, 55 (71 %) patients disclosed and 22 (29 %) did not disclose. Questions were classified as: open-ended (n = 18, “How’s the drinking going?”); normalizing (n = 14, “When was the last time you used?”); closed-ended (n = 36, “Have you used any cocaine?”); leading towards non-use (n = 9, “Have you been clean?”). Accurate disclosure followed 100 % of open-ended and normalizing questions, 58 % of closed-ended questions, and 22 % of leading questions. After adjusting for drug type, closed-ended questions were 41 % less likely (p < 0.001), and ‘leading’ questions 78 % less likely (p = 0.016) than broad and normalizing questions to elicit disclosures. CONCLUSION: Providers in this sample missed almost half of the opportunities to identify and discuss substance use with PLWH. Providers can increase the probability of patient disclosure by using open-ended or normalizing questions that ask about the “last time” that the patient used drugs or alcohol.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1141-1147
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of general internal medicine
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016


  • patient–provider communication
  • substance use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine


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