Psychometric Performance of a Substance Use Symptom Checklist to Help Clinicians Assess Substance Use Disorder in Primary Care


Substance use disorders (SUDs) are underrecognized in primary care, where structured clinical interviews are often infeasible. A brief, standardized substance use symptom checklist could help clinicians assess SUD.


To evaluate the psychometric properties of the Substance Use Symptom Checklist (hereafter symptom checklist) used in primary care among patients reporting daily cannabis use and/or other drug use as part of population-based screening and assessment.

Design, setting, and participants:

This cross-sectional study was conducted among adult primary care patients who completed the symptom checklist during routine care between March 1, 2015, and March 1, 2020, at an integrated health care system. Data analysis was conducted from June 1, 2021, to May 1, 2022.

Main outcomes and measures:

The symptom checklist included 11 items corresponding to SUD criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) (DSM-5). Item response theory (IRT) analyses tested whether the symptom checklist was unidimensional and reflected a continuum of SUD severity and evaluated item characteristics (discrimination and severity). Differential item functioning analyses examined whether the symptom checklist performed similarly across age, sex, race, and ethnicity. Analyses were stratified by cannabis and/or other drug use.


A total of 23 304 screens were included (mean [SD] age, 38.2 [5.6] years; 12 554 [53.9%] male patients; 17 439 [78.8%] White patients; 20 393 [87.5%] non-Hispanic patients). Overall, 16 140 patients reported daily cannabis use only, 4791 patients reported other drug use only, and 2373 patients reported both daily cannabis and other drug use. Among patients with daily cannabis use only, other drug use only, or both daily cannabis and other drug use, 4242 (26.3%), 1446 (30.2%), and 1229 (51.8%), respectively, endorsed 2 or more items on the symptom checklist, consistent with DSM-5 SUD. For all cannabis and drug subsamples, IRT models supported the unidimensionality of the symptom checklist, and all items discriminated between higher and lower levels of SUD severity. Differential item functioning was observed for some items across sociodemographic subgroups but did not result in meaningful change (<1 point difference) in the overall score (0-11).

Conclusions and relevance:

In this cross-sectional study, a symptom checklist, administered to primary care patients who reported daily cannabis and/or other drug use during routine screening, discriminated SUD severity as expected and performed well across subgroups. Findings support the clinical utility of the symptom checklist for standardized and more complete SUD symptom assessment to help clinicians make diagnostic and treatment decisions in primary care.

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