Criminally Pregnant

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I usually don’t post a new entry so soon after the last, but this topic is time-sensitive.

I’m getting tired of writing about Tennessee’s crazy politicians but this time their insanity is so egregious that I can’t let it pass without comment.

The Tennessee house and senate passed a bill that allows a woman to be criminally charged if her baby is born drug dependent. If their Governor Haslam signs this bill, it will become law.

As we know, Tennessee has a terrible opioid addiction problem with one of the highest overdose death rates in the nation. Opioid addiction afflicts men and women in nearly equal numbers, and most of those women are in their child-bearing years. Thus, Tennessee has many pregnant women who have the disease of drug addiction.

Naturally, hospitals have seen a growing number of infants born with opioid withdrawal. Small rural hospitals may not have physicians who are educated about how to treat these babies. It’s a frightening situation, and the response is fear-based: make drug use during pregnancy a crime.
Politicians promote draconian laws that will punish these women, who are probably the most vilified segment of society, and gain favor with voters who don’t understand the underlying issues.

So now Tennessee has a law that makes getting pregnant a crime, if you have the disease of addiction. (By the way, there are other illnesses that can harm the fetus if the mom becomes pregnant, but we have no laws making pregnancy illegal for those patients.)

Supporters of this new insane law probably say it should encourage pregnant addicts to get help before their babies are born. That could be true, if Tennessee had adequate treatment programs in place. As we know, methadone and buprenorphine are the best treatments for opioid-addicted pregnant women, yet under this law, this gold-standard of treatment may also be considered illegal.

So should pregnant moms “just say no” and stop using opioids? We know that going through opioid withdrawal while pregnant is associated with bad outcomes for mom and fetus, what with increased risks of preterm labor, placental abruption, and low birth weights. Over the last fifty years, multiple studies repeatedly show better outcomes when you maintain the mom of a stable dose of methadone, or more recently buprenorphine, during the pregnancy.

If this bill is signed into law by Tennessee’s governor, we can predict what will happen.

After all, what would you do, if you are a pregnant addict and know you will be prosecuted if anyone discovers you’re drug user? You avoid prenatal care. Maybe you get an abortion, even if you really want a baby, because you don’t want to go to jail. Maybe you try to stop using opioids on your own, go into withdrawal, and have one of the complications we know to be common in such a situation. Maybe you have preterm labor at 30 weeks and your baby ends up in the intensive care unit for many months. Worse, maybe your baby doesn’t make it. Or your baby does make it, but is taken away from you at birth, because authorities say an addict can’t care for a baby. Your baby enters the foster care system, with its pitfalls.

In short, this law discourages medical care in the very population of women who can benefit the most from medical care and treatment of addiction!

But wait…this law says the woman can be charged if the baby is born dependent. What about pregnant women who smoke? The infants are technically dependent on nicotine, so that meets this law’s criteria. These women can also be criminally charged. Probably Tennessee would have to build a new jail just for those women, and of course Tennessee’s taxpayers would be happy to pay for their incarceration, right?

In the past, laws against drug use in pregnancy have been unevenly implemented. If you look at the cases that have been prosecuted, nearly all involved poor, non-white mothers. Maybe that’s because law enforcement knows that people of higher socioeconomic status can afford hire a lawyer to defend themselves against these ridiculous laws, which always get struck down on appeal, though that can take years.

Policies that inflict criminal penalties on pregnant women with the treatable disease of addiction cause harm to everyone. Hospitals have higher costs when a mom with no prenatal care arrives on their door step ready to deliver, with much higher rates of perinatal complications. Taxpayers end up paying the high costs of incarceration for these women. But most of all, the babies and their moms are harmed.

Let Governor Haslam know how you feel by writing to him: bill.haslam@tn.gov or call at: (615-741-2001)

Insomnia Medications for Patients in Medication-Assisted Treatment

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In one of my recent blog entries, I talked about some simple measures that can help patients with insomnia, called sleep hygiene. Many times these methods can fix the problem, but other times, patients still can’t sleep well, which interferes with life. In these cases, medications may be of some help.

The “Z” medications
The “Z” group of medications includes zolpidem (Ambien), zaleplon (Sonata), and eszopiclone (Lunesta). These medications, which are not benzodiazepines, have been touted as being safer and less addictive than older benzodiazepines, like temazepam (Restoril), triazolam (Halcion) or clonazepam (Klonopin). However, the “Z” medications stimulate the same brain receptors as benzodiazepines, and are all Schedule IV controlled substances, just like benzodiazepines. This means they all have roughly the same potential to cause addiction, despite enthusiastic marketing by some drug companies.

I don’t prescribe the “Z” medications for patients on medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine because they can cause overdose deaths in these patients. Also, these medications can give many patients with the disease of addiction the same impulse to misuse their medication. I’ve had patients develop problems with misuse and overuse of these medicines.

Trazadone
Many doctors, including me, have prescribed trazadone to help patients get and stay asleep. It’s an antidepressant, but daytime use has been limited due to drowsiness. In an effort to use this side effect for benefit, it’s often prescribed at bedtime to treat insomnia. But a recent study called this practice into question. In this study, trazadone was not found to be effective for methadone maintenance patients with insomnia. Test subjects were monitored with sleep study apparatus, and these subjects had no subjective or objective benefit from trazadone, either in initiating or staying asleep. [1]

Because trazadone can affect the QT interval, just like methadone, it’s possible these two drugs used together will dangerously prolong the QT interval. Also, both can cause sedation, also a concern. In view of this data, I have stopped recommending or prescribing it as an insomnia medication.

Quetiapine (Seroquel)
Quetiapine is in the group of medications known as atypical antipsychotics, and is indicated for the treatment of schizophrenia, the mania of bipolar disorder, and treatment-resistant depression. Because it is a sedating medication, many doctors prescribe it for treatment of insomnia, usually at low doses, around 25 to 100mg at bedtime.

Does it work? Two small studies, designed to see if the drug can help insomnia, showed conflicting results. One study showed significant improvement and the other showed no significant improvement.

Furthermore, this medication is not without side effects. At higher doses, used to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, patients can develop diabetes and hyperlipidemia. But even at low doses, we see weight gain, restless legs, dizziness which can lead to night time falls, and dry mouth. There’s a risk, though likely small, of tardive dyskinesia with this drug. This is a serious movement disorder more commonly seen with the older antipsychotics like thorazine; patients on the atypical antipsychotics can also develop this potentially devastating disorder.

With little evidence to support its use, and potential serious side effects, I no longer initiate a prescription for quetiapine in a patient with insomnia. I do have some patients who’ve been started on this medication before they started seeing me. If they still feel it’s effective and I see no side effects, I’ll continue the medication. I make sure they get yearly lipid profiles done and recommend yearly screens for diabetes, and monitor for weight gain.

At addiction medicine conferences, I’ve heard doctors say that some of their patients misuse quetiapine. Personally, I think that must be unusual, and maybe these are patients in an experimental phase of addiction. I don’t see seasoned addicts using this medication to get high.

Ramelteon (Rozerem)
This medication, approved by the FDA for treatment of insomnia in 2005, isn’t addictive. It works by stimulating melatonin receptors and it helps patients get to sleep somewhat more effectively than placebo, but doesn’t help keep them asleep. Ramelteon doesn’t cause the rebound insomnia commonly seen after use of the “Z” medications, and has few clinically significant drug interactions. Last time I checked, it’s more expensive than many sleep medications, and many insurance companies demand a prior authorization before they’ll pay for it. I’ve had a few patients do well with this medication, so I like to prescribe it.

Melatonin
Once hoped to be the miracle treatment for insomnia, studies show that at best, melatonin is mildly more effective than placebo for the treatment of insomnia. Melatonin isn’t a prescription medication, and is sold by many manufacturers with little quality control. Since it is categorized as a dietary supplement, the FDA does not examine or approve these products. Since 2010, the FDA only requires that dietary supplements be made according to “good manufacturing practices,” and that companies make a consistent product, free of contamination, with accurate labeling. As I see it, that’s not much oversight and people take their chances with dietary supplements of any kind.

Diphenhydramine
More commonly known as Benadryl, many over-the-counter sleep medications contain this sedating anti-histamine. It can cause sedation in patients taking methadone, and should be avoided or used with caution. I’ve seen one methadone overdose death I believed was due to the interaction with methadone and diphenhydramine, though the patient had taken more than one 50mg diphenhydramine pill.

Otherwise, the medication is mildly to moderately effect at helping people get to sleep. Don’t take more than 50mg, because higher doses can have a reverse effect, and interfere with sleep.

Hydroxyzine (Vistaril) is another potentially sedating anti-histamine that is felt by some doctors to be safer than diphenhydramine, but I can’t find any data to support that view.

Other medications
Clonidine
I occasionally prescribe clonidine if I think my patient is having a degree of opioid withdrawal as the cause of insomnia. I’m talking about patients who wish to taper, not patients on maintenance. If a patient on maintenance has insomnia from withdrawal, it’s best to increase the dose of the maintenance medication.

Clonidine can help insomnia from withdrawal. Because this is a blood pressure medication, it can drop night-time blood pressure when taken for sleep. This can cause a patient to fall if they get up during the night. I caution patients that if they must get up at night, stand beside their bed for a few minutes to make sure they don’t feel dizzy. I usually prescribe a .1mg pill and have them take only one pill.

Gabapentin (Neurontin)
This anti-seizure medication is used for a little bit of everything, so why not insomnia? Officially, gabapentin is approved by the FDA for treating seizures and for the pain of post-herpetic neuralgia (that’s the pain that stays after a shingles outbreak). But doctors use gabapentin for fibromyalgia, insomnia, migraine headaches, bipolar disorder, and probably other conditions. According to Medscape’s drug interaction checker, gabapentin has no interaction with methadone or buprenorphine, but Epocrates’ drug interaction checker says use with caution with these medications due to possible daytime sedation.

Muscle relaxers
Some patients take these medications at bedtime for their sedating effect, but I don’t think there’s any evidence these medications are particularly effective.

Placebo
I include placebo as a reminder that about thirty percent of people will get benefit from a pill containing no medication. Our minds are powerful. (Parenthetically, I’m highly susceptible to suggestion. As a young adult, I got “drunk” on cider that I was told contained alcohol. I felt intoxicated, to the point of losing my balance and getting dizzy. But my friend had played a trick and there was no alcohol in this cider.) It’s difficult to know if a pill or potion for sleep works because it’s effective, or if it works because of the placebo effect. If you’ve found a medication that works, keep taking it, so long as it’s not doing any harm.

A recent study showed that adults who use sleeping pills are more than three times more likely to die prematurely compared to matched controls who didn’t use sleeping pills.

This relatively large study looked at the medical records of over 10,000 patients who were prescribed hypnotics for sleep, and compared their outcomes to over 23,000 matched control patients, similar except the controls weren’t taking sleeping pills. The sleeping pills, also called “hypnotics” were associated with significant increases in mortality and significant increases in cancer incidence. [2]

The patients’ average age was 54, and they were followed for an average of 2.5 years. All were members of a large U.S. healthcare system in Pennsylvania. The data from the two groups were adjusted for age, gender, smoking status, prior cancer diagnoses, body mass index, ethnicity, and alcohol use.

Patients in the group taking prescribed hypnotics most frequently, defined as more than 132 doses per year, had over five times increased risk of dying than patients not taking hypnotics. Even the group of patients taking hypnotics relatively infrequently (up to 18 doses per year) had a three times higher risk of death. These differences were statistically significant. The medications in the study included all of the “Z” medications, as well as temazepam (Restoril), barbiturates, and the sedating antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl).

The author of this study estimated that hypnotic medications are associated with 320,000 to 507,000 deaths in the U.S. over the year 2010.

This study raises some important questions, since hypnotic drugs are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., with an estimated 6 to 10% of the population being prescribed these medications.
Sleep medicine doctors say that correlation doesn’t mean causation, and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. One sleep specialist pointed out that the study didn’t control for psychiatric illness, which could be a significant factor. Additionally, patients who are prescribed sleeping medications may be sicker overall, in ways the study didn’t control, and therefore a generally less healthy group. This could distort study findings.

Other scientists say that sleeping pills could make sleep apnea worse, and cause deaths in that way. Obesity increases the risk of sleep apnea, and with more adults becoming obese, perhaps sleeping pills make apnea worse and these people die in their sleep. Other scientists say sleeping pills slow reflexes, and perhaps patients taking these medications are more likely to be involved in car accidents and other accidents, increasing their death rates.

As for my patients, many of whom are prescribed methadone or buprenorphine, the risk of drug interaction and overdose with the hypnotics usually outweighs all of the benefits, and I recommend that patients do not mix these two types of medications.

As a final bit of advice, I want to remind readers that other physical and mental health conditions can cause insomnia. It’s a good idea to see a primary care doctor to screen for these conditions, which can include sleep apnea, asthma, gastroesophagel reflux, hyperthyroidism, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders. Sometimes patients need sleep studies to assess for sleep disorders.

1. Stein et al, “Trazadone for sleep disturbance during methadone maintenance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial,” Drug and Alcohol Depend., 2012, Jan 1;120(1-3):65-73
2. BMJ Open 2012;2:e000850 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-000850

Prostate Specific Antigen and Opioid Use

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I’ve posted before about the effects of opioids on PSA levels, used to screen for prostate cancer. Here’s a reminder. This is from a study by Safarinejad et al, in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, Vol 7(1) pages 58-65.

PSA is an enzyme normally found in low levels in the blood of men with healthy prostates. It’s elevated in a variety of prostate diseases. Notably, it’s elevated in men with prostate cancer, but it can also be elevated from other ailments that cause inflammation of the prostate.

Routine screening of men through checking the PSA levels is controversial, because some experts say it leads to unnecessary prostate biopsies. They also say screening doesn’t reduce deaths from prostate cancer. However, many men specifically ask for PSA screening, and many doctors still check the PSA levels as part of a routine physical. PSA levels can be followed after a patient has been treated for prostate cancer, and elevated levels can mean a recurrence of the cancer.
In this study of Iranian men, male opioid addicts had 28% lower PSA levels than subjects that didn’t use opioids.

We already know that opioid use is associated with lower serum testosterone levels, so the authors of the study postulated that lower testosterone levels lead to lower PSA levels, but this was not the case, at least in this group of men. There was no correlation between serum testosterone levels and PSA levels in this study, so it did not appear that testosterone levels caused the lowered PSA levels.

Since prostate biopsies are performed on men with elevated PSAs the study authors were concerned that in opioid addicts, their lower PSA levels will fall below the threshold for biopsy. This could mean cancers could be missed in opioid users that might be detected in non-opioid users. Therefore, prostate cancers may not be detected in opioid addicts until the cancer is more advanced.

Indeed, in this study, more the men on opioids who were diagnosed with prostate cancer during the study period had higher grade prostate cancer than the men not on opioids who were diagnosed with prostate cancer during the study period.

This study suggests that for men on long-term opioids, PSA cut-offs should be lowered when deciding if the patient needs an evaluation for possible prostate cancer.

Insomnia

aainsomnia

Insomnia is defined as a sleep disorder which makes it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep. Insomnia can come & go for periods of time, or can be a chronic problem. Not sleeping well can make us less able to handle the stresses of the next day, and can severely affect the quality of our lives.

Insomnia afflicts many patients in recovery, including those on medication assisted treatment with buprenorphine and methadone. Insomnia can occur for many reasons: the brain may be adjusting to life without the chemical ups & downs of addicted life, or because the patient had insomnia even before the addiction started. Physical health problems (chronic pain, thyroid disease, and menopause to name but a few) can cause insomnia or make it worse, as can mental illnesses like anxiety and mood disorders.

Active addiction can destroy normal sleep-wake cycles. Addictive chemicals disrupt the structure and function of the brain, and often people in active addiction become accustomed to passing out rather than falling asleep. It can be difficult to re-learn how to get to sleep naturally.

Many U.S. citizens, and not only addicts, have become “chemical copers.” We have the idea that every problem can and should be fixed with medication. But with insomnia, sleep hygiene is the best first option, and medication can be used if sleep hygiene doesn’t work.

Sleep hygiene, which sounds it means washing behind your ears at bedtime, really refers to habits that help us get satisfactory sleep. Most are common sense ideas, and they can really make a big difference. Here are some of these ideas:

1. Go to bed at the same time and wake at the same time every day, even on weekends.
If it’s at all possible, don’t go to bed later or sleep later on weekend days. Get your body into the habit of keeping a regular sleep/wake cycle. You will fall asleep more easily with a fixed bed time.
Besides making your feel better because you’ll get more regular sleep, this practice has other benefits. For example, people with migraine and tension headaches have fewer pain episodes with regular sleep/wake times. Keeping regular sleeping hours is also highly recommended for patients with bipolar disorder, as it can help with mood swings.

2. Avoid caffeine late in the day. For some people, drinking caffeine in the late afternoon can affect them up to six hours later. To be sure, cut off caffeine at least eight hours before you want to sleep. Caffeine doesn’t affect everyone to this degree, but unless you know for sure, try to limit late-day caffeine. If you consume energy drinks, consider cutting back or stopping them.

3. Make sure your bed is comfortable and your room as free from distractions as possible. Pets and rowdy bed partners may need to sleep in other areas. Make sure the room temperature is conducive to sleep and there’s no noise or light that may interrupt sleep. Keeping the television on for background noise isn’t a good idea and can prevent you from getting to the deeper levels of sleep.

4. Don’t set your alarm for earlier than you need to. Many of us like to do this so we can hit snooze a few times. However, the most beneficial sleep, REM sleep, comes at the end of the night, and we are depriving ourselves of REM sleep by hitting the snooze button a few times before getting out of bed for good.

5. Have a bedtime ritual. Have things you do each night before going to bed that relax you and put you in a mindset to sleep. This could be a series of ablutions like brushing your teeth, flossing, or taking a warm bath. Other people may prefer doing prayer or meditation to quiet the mind, or reading.

6. Don’t nap during the day to catch up on sleep. More than anything else, napping will keep you from sleeping at night.

This is a tough one for me, since napping has long been one of my hobbies. Because I think of a good nap as one of life’s great joys, on some days I’m willing to risk not being able to get to sleep at night and take the nap anyway.

7. Don’t use alcohol to help you sleep. While alcohol does cause faster sleep onset, it also shortens the sleep cycle, causing us to wake earlier, and robs us of the important REM sleep. Over long term, alcohol can greatly interfere with your sleep cycle.

8. Only use your bed for sleep. OK, for sex too. But don’t live in your bed so that you become accustomed to eating, watching television, and working on the computer in bed. Your mind should associate bed with sleep, and not these waking activities.

9. Exercise each day. More than most other suggestions, this one can help you more than you expect. Even a small amount of exercise can have surprisingly good benefits. Don’t exercise too close to bedtime, since exercise can have a stimulating effect.

Sometimes people in early recovery find they want to sleep more than usual. This can be part of your physical recovery, and I think it’s best to listen to your body and allow yourself extra sleep time without feeling guilty. However, some mood disorders also make people want to “take to the bed” during times of stress and negative emotion. This latter situation may need medication if it continues or interferes with your life.

If you try all these sleep hygiene measures and you still can’t sleep, talk to your doctor about a safe medication for sleep. I’ll write more about medications in a later blog.

Drug Interactions with Methadone

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Recently, medical directors of opioid treatment programs in my state pondered how to handle the risk of medication interactions with methadone. In my area of the country, chart reviews of patients who died while taking methadone revealed many decedents were taking other medications with known interactions with methadone. Obviously, we want to prevent these deaths, and need to protect against drug interactions.

To predict a possible drug interaction, the OTP doctor must know all of the other medications that the patient is taking, both prescription and non-prescription. I assume all doctors at opioid treatment programs ask the patients what medications they are prescribed on the first day, along with what they take over the counter. That’s a good start, but often it’s not sufficient.

On that first day, patients aren’t feeling well. They are in opioid withdrawal and they yearn to feel better. They may forget about some medication or assume it’s not important to mention. They may forget about over-the-counter medications. Sometimes patients deliberately keep silent about medications if they’re worried they won’t be allowed to continue them. Most commonly this happens with benzodiazepines, but doctors can detect prescriptions for these controlled substances, since they are listed on our state’s prescription monitoring program.

Benzodiazepines are the most common drug found in patients who have died while prescribed methadone.

At my opioid treatment programs, we keep lists of our patients’ medications in their charts.
We tell patients to please tell us right away if they are prescribed any medications after they enter our program, so we are alerted to possible drug interactions. Patients are instructed to tell the nurses, since they see nurses most often, and the nurses then tell me. It’s OK for patients to tell counselors, but counselors aren’t medically trained so they must pass the information on the nurses and doctors.

Keeping an up to date list of each patient’s medications is challenging, but do-able with a good system in place. However, the list isn’t worth much unless the doctor is made aware of all prescribed medications, so each opioid treatment program’s system must include a way to provide the doctor with all this information.

At my programs, I sign a form giving my approval (or disapproval) of all medications that are prescribed for the patient, and I write orders if any further action needs to be taken, like asking the patient about any withdrawal symptoms or sedation. But this might happen a few days after the medication is started, so nurses also send me texts with notice of any new medication. This is the best method for me, since I can quickly text back with any orders for enhanced patient monitoring. One program sends emails which I can receive on my smart phone, read immediately, and send my response.

Opioid treatment program physicians need to know which medications can interact with methadone. This list can be long, and varies somewhat depending on the source of information.

Methadone interacts with other drugs in several ways; since it’s metabolized by specific enzymes in the liver, called the cytochrome P450 system, other drugs affect this system can affect the patient’s blood level of methadone. Sometimes other medications can induce, or speed up, methadone’s metabolism, which can drop the patient’s methadone blood level. Other medications inhibit methadone’s metabolism, causing the methadone blood level to rise. In the first situation, a previously stable patient may start to feel withdrawal. In the second situation, the patient may become sedated from methadone and even be at risk for a fatal overdose.

Other medications, mostly sedatives, act on the same centers in the central nervous system as methadone to produce even more sedation. These actions can be synergistic. Synergy between two medications means that the effect of two drugs is greater than you would expect. To put it another way, instead of one plus one equals two, suddenly one plus one equals three or even four. You get more effect than you bargain for.

Then there’s the whole QT interval prolongation that can be caused by methadone. Many other commonly used medications also prolong the QT interval, so that when they are prescribed with methadone, patients are theoretically placed at increased risk of a potentially fatal heart arrhythmia. Relatively common drugs like citalopram (Celexa), erythromycin, and cipro can cause QT interval prolongation.

How can a doctor know about the ways drugs interact with methadone? Most of the main drugs, like sedatives, methadone inducers and inhibitors, we know off the top of our heads, but technology gives us many ways to augment our brain power. Doctors can reference one of the three or four free smart phone apps. These are particularly helpful with the QT interval prolongers, since that list is very long and frequently changing.

Now for the hardest part: what should a doctor to do when a patient gets a medication that can interact with methadone? I’ve scoured the internet, and there are no easy answers. The Addiction Treatment Forum, has published some general guidelines that seem prudent: http://www.atforum.com/pdf/Drug_Interactions.pdf

As the AT Forum points out, just because an interaction may occur doesn’t mean it will occur. Certainly we should notify the patient of possible drug interactions and ask them to report any sedation or withdrawal while they are taking the new medication so that we can adjust the methadone dose accordingly. If the new medication is only prescribed for a week or two, the patient may not need a dose adjustment.

We may recommend getting an EKG if the new medication is known to prolong the QT interval. It’s nice if that can be done at the opioid treatment program, but OTPs may not be doing regular screening, especially after the Cochrane report of 2013 called routine EKG screening of methadone patients into question. (See my blog post of 9/19/13)

Should an EKG be done? Who should do it? What should we do if the QT interval is prolonged? If the second medication is essential to treat a serious ailment, should the patient’s methadone dose be reduced? Should that patient switch to buprenorphine? Is the risk of partially treated opioid addiction potentially more harmful to the patient than the other serious ailment for which the patient is being treated?

I don’t know the answers and I can’t find anyone else who can give me solid answers about what to do in cases where my patients are prescribed other medications that interact with methadone. For now, I am taking what I feel are prudent precautions, and trying hard not to over-react and pull a patient off methadone, since I know for sure methadone is live-saving. It’s important to remember that just because an interaction is possible doesn’t mean it will happen.

If another doctor prescribes a medication short-term that may interact with methadone, I want the patient to be informed of a possible reaction. I may, with the patient’s permission, call the doctor to ask them if it can be changed to a safer medication, or I may ask the nurses to check with the patient about sedation or withdrawal each day when they come in to dose. Sometimes I’ve asked patients on higher take home levels to come to the OTP more often for closer monitoring until we see the full effects of a new medication, then return them to their usual take home status.

Patients need to tell us when they stop medications, too. I had one patient who was on phenytoin (Dilantin) for the treatment of seizures. Since this medication induces methadone metabolism and drops the serum methadone level, I had increased the patient’s dose of methadone to keep him out of withdrawal. But then, deciding he no longer needed to take phenytoin, he suddenly stopped it and became sedated. Thankfully he reported his sedation to the nurses and we quickly figured out what had happened. His dose had to be lowered quite a bit to prevent overdose, since off phenytoin, his blood level of methadone apparently rose abruptly.

At one of the OTPs where I work, I can easily get an EKG to monitor the QT interval. At the other, I have to ask the other doctor to check and EKG. Particularly with psychiatric medications, this creates difficulties, since psychiatrists usually don’t do EKGs in their offices. The patient has to be referred to a third facility if I feel an EKG is essential. This can become expensive to a patient without insurance, so it’s better if the doctor prescribes a medication that doesn’t affect the QT interval, if possible.

As time goes on, I think we’ll get more information about medication interactions with methadone, and I’d like to see more specific guidelines about how to handle potential

I Apologize

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Some of my readers were offended by my last post, titled “you might be an addict if…” so I have taken it down. My intentions were not to offend any of my readers, and I apologize for hurting readers’ feelings. I was trying for light-hearted humor. We humans are a funny bunch, and do weird things that I like to write about. So I wrote about some of the odd things people in active addiction will do.

I haven’t written about my own recovery before, preferring to maintain my anonymity at the level of press, radio, etc. However, I feel I need to explain my motivation for the blog post. I’ve lived some of the situations described in the post, and got others from my friends in recovery. I did weird things in active addiction that are funny and goofy. For example, I’ve driven past my house a few times when I saw a bunch of unfamiliar cars, worried my family was planning an intervention. I’ve moved to a different state to get away from my addiction, only to find it followed me. I’m not making fun of addicts; I’m making fun of the weird things addicts do because of their addiction. Even after nearly sixteen years of recovery, I remember the weirdness.

To those of you who thought my post was insulting, I’m sorry. I did not mean to offend.

Project Lazarus in the Huffington Post

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In a nice article in the Huffington Post, Project Lazarus, located in Wilkes County, NC, was highlighted as an example of how a community can take action to prevent drug overdose deaths. Please check it out at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/05/project-lazarus_n_4889620.html?1394071210

Many people think Project Lazarus provides naloxone kits to reverse overdoses, and this is true, but they do much more than that. Project Lazarus has sponsored educational programs for doctors to learn to be more cautious when prescribing opioids, has sponsored medication take back days where old prescription meds can safely be disposed, and has worked with agencies and organizations across North Carolina and the nation to better inform doctors, law enforcement, and elected officials about what works to prevent drug overdose deaths.

Project Lazarus helped pass a Good Samaritan law North Carolina (see my post of April 20, 2013). Under this new law, a person who calls 911 to save another person’s life – or their own – won’t be prosecuted for minor drug possession, since they were trying to do the right thing and save a life by calling 911.

The Huffington Post article describes how the opioid overdose death rate has been falling in Wilkes County, while the overdose death rate in other parts of the country has been steadily rising. They credit Project Lazarus for this reduction in overdose deaths.

While I’m sure Project Lazarus has played a huge role in reducing overdose deaths not only in Wilkes County and the state of North Carolina, other factors have helped. Being an opioid addiction treatment provider, of course I believe availability of addiction treatment reduced deaths too.

Project Lazarus also supported the opening of an opioid treatment program in 2011, Mountain Health Solutions. Started by Dr. Elizabeth Stanton, this program initially offered only buprenorphine. As it grew, it became obvious some patients needed methadone treatment, so option became available by late 2011. Mountain Health Solutions was eventually purchased by CRC Health in 2012, and has continued to grow. Located in a small town, we have nearly four hundred patients.

I am honored to be the medical director at this program. It’s one on the best programs I’ve seen, and we work hard to keep improving our quality of care. Our program has done outreach -particularly in the medical community- to try to reduce the stigma of medication-assisted treatment. If you read my blog, you know this can be both a joy and a challenge.

Initially, Project Lazarus paid for an intranasal naloxone kit for every patient entering our opioid treatment program. Now since our patient census has risen, Project Lazarus still pays half of the $50 cost of the kits. The opioid treatment program pays the other half, out of a $33 admission charge for new patients. I feel lucky to be able to partner with Project Lazarus, as I’ve seen these kits save lives.

I know of four occasions when a naloxone kit saved a person’s life. Three of these four times, that person saved wasn’t even in treatment for opioid addiction.

Most recently, a parent used a kit to reverse an opioid overdose in a child who accidently ingested the parent’s medication. The parent called 911 and while waiting for EMS to arrive, used one of the two vials in the kit. The child partially woke, and started breathing better. Then EMS arrived and took the child to the hospital. This child survived a potentially fatal overdose and is back to normal with no lasting damage, thanks in part to that naloxone kit and a parent who knew how to use it.

Naloxone kits can be obtained much more cheaply, but contain Narcan vials, a more dilute form of naloxone that is meant to be injected. Those kits, which cost a few dollars, contain a syringe and needle instead of the Project Lazarus kit for nasal administration. Trying to inject naloxone into a vein is technically much more difficult than spraying the more concentrated form of naloxone up into the nose.

And unfortunately, a kit containing a needle and syringe would meet resistance from the public. I can imagine all sorts of angry phone calls to our opioid treatment program: “My son came to you people to get off the needle and you GAVE him a needle and syringe??” Politically, the public would more likely oppose distribution of a naloxone kit with a needle than a kit for intranasal use.

Fifty dollars for an intranasal naloxone kit to save a life is a pittance in the overall picture. Some insurance companies will cover these kits, as will Medicaid, but most of our patients have no insurance. They pay for their buprenorphine/methadone treatment out of their own pocket. Fifty dollars is a big sum for these patients.

I am blessed to work for an opioid treatment program that gets financial help from Project Lazarus for these kits. And I am very blessed to work for a for-profit company, CRC Health, which is willing to bear half the cost of the kits, since this comes out of their profits. Most opioid treatment programs do charge patients an admission fee, but unlike Mountain Health Solutions, don’t put that money towards buying a naloxone kits for their patients.

This is an example of the success that can happen when agencies work together toward a common goal.

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