Model Program Screens All Pregnant Women for Substance Use

  • Babies born to women who use chemicals cost everyone a lot of money. Besides, being hooked on drugs at the time of birth is a rough way to begin a new life. The highest rate of substance use in pregnant women is in women between the ages 15 to 17 years old. This figure, from a 2010 survey,1 is a sobering reminder that substance use is a real and growing problem in young mothers-to-be. And the costs are high considering the amount of complications that can happen to the new born or to the new mother.


    Babies born to women who use substances like opioids, cocaine, tobacco and alcohol are a higher risk for being born prematurely with low birth weights and in need of a ventilator. Treatment of neonatal abstinence syndrome is very labor intensive and costly. If the baby survives, there could also be long-term developmental problems that can last for years if not for life.

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    Women who use substances during pregnancy are also putting their own lives at risk because of the likelihood of pre-ecclampsia, placental abruption and baby malpresentation. One model health care program hopes to lower these risks and lead the nation into a safer world for babies and mothers-to-be.


    The Kaiser Permanente Early Start Program claims that the nation could save billions in health care costs if their program was implemented nationwide.2 By identifying the barriers that prevented doctors from detecting and treating women and babies at risk, this program has offered more accessibility and integrative care than has ever been seen before.


    All pregnant women are asked to fill out a questionnaire and complete a urine drug test. Next, the women at risk are placed in the Early Start program where specialists in obstetrics, addiction, mental health and social services all work together as a team at each and every appointment. Women are then educated and treated for the identified substance use.3


    Overall, the Early Start program accounts for fewer pre-term deliveries, fewer babies needing a ventilator and fewer still births. Not only does this program saves lives, it saves money too. Because of this program’s success, experts are calling for all doctors to at least start routinely asking all pregnant women to do urine drug tests. Without identifying who is at risk, treatment often comes a little too late. Early detection leads to early intervention and access to appropriate care. The Early Start Program success story is a compelling reason why all pregnant women should be screened for substance use.


    1. Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:
      Summary of National Findings; 
    2. From Press Release:
    3. Perm J. 2007 Summer; 11(3): 5–11:
Published On: October 16, 2012