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Online surveys are the key to better drug treatment services

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I’m just embarking on a new substance misuse needs assessment.

Drug needs assessments are the single most important component in getting local drug treatment systems right.

You can’t design a treatment system to meet local needs unless you’re sure what those needs are.

When I do a needs assessment, I use a fairly straightforward approach which triangulates findings from three main sources:

  1. Data systems
  2. Drug workers and other professionals
  3. Drug users

By far the most important source of information are drug users themselves.

Patterns and trends of drug use, prices and availability all change rapidly, all the time.

It takes time to plan or change a drug treatment system so it’s important that the information in the needs assessment is as up-to-date as possible.

Drug treatment data systems provide good information on the drugs used by  people who have developed an addiction through years of use and then decide they need treatment. They are not so useful at telling us what new drugs people are using – that’s one of the reasons that services were so slow to cater for the needs of the first generation of crack cocaine users in the 1990s.

One of the results of the cuts in public expenditure is that needs assessments are now often required to be done in short periods of time.

So my challenge is how to get the views of as many local drug users as possible, as quickly as possible.

An online approach

I first used online surveys in my evaluation of Virtual Ward Panels where they proved very effective in getting the views of members of the public on their local crime priorities.

Their great advantage was the fact that they only took most people 1- 2 minutes to complete.

Recently, I’ve been inspired by the startling success of the MixMag/Guardian recreational drug use survey (which was completed by more than 15,000 drug users worldwide) to develop a number of online tools to supplement face-to-face interviews.

For the upcoming needs assessment, I am in the process of developing a range of quick-to-complete online surveys around patterns of use, availability and price of drugs locally, and awareness of treatment services.

The challenge is to get as many local drug users as possible to fill them in.

I’m confident that this is going to be much easier than getting old-style paper questionnaires completed.

I’m intending to use a number of approaches:

  1. Putting links to the online surveys on the  Drug and Alcohol Action Team website.
  2. Getting treatment services to promote the surveys and encourage service users to complete them on the premises.
  3. Getting service user groups to promote the surveys.

It’s this last approach which I’m hoping is going to be the most successful.

Service user group members know lots of drug users who are not in treatment and this group can give really useful insights into new drugs that are popular locally, perceptions of local treatment agencies and any reasons why they may be using them.

I’m going to get service users’ ideas on how best to make the surveys available and will be exploring the viability of making the links available via social media.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

But while thinking about this process, I wondered about more ambitious uses of online surveys.

It would be relatively easy to do national surveys with drug treatment agencies encouraging all their clients for a period of, say one week, to complete an online survey around their use of different substances, or their price. The survey could be done in the waiting area and links publicised and made available on services’ Facebook pages.

Surveys could be targeted to get more information about the use of new substances, such as methoxetamine – mexxy or MXE  – the first legal high to be banned in the UK under a Temporary Class Drug Order on 28th March this year.

The great thing about this approach is that most of the online survey tools automatically crunch the data.

Which means that you could ask a question one week and publish the answer the next.

This would mean that drug treatment provision and public health campaigns can be tailored to current needs – instead of being based on out-of-date information.

I’m sure there is a multitude of creative uses for online surveys.

Please suggest yours below.




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