Archive for the ‘Pain Pill Addiction’ Category

New Health Care Laws: How Will They Affect Office-based Treatment with Suboxone?

Last week, one of my office-based buprenorphine patients asked me how I thought the new healthcare laws would affect my business. I’ve considered this question with a mix of anxiety and hope. Until we have more details, I’m not certain I’ll like the new changes. And of course since I’m a healthcare provider, I’ll look at changes differently than if I were an insurance executive.

I told my patient that it will be excellent for my patients in buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex) treatment who don’t have insurance now, and are paying out of pocket. My patient then remarked that I’ll be much busier, because more pain pill addicts will be able to afford treatment.

“No,” I said, “I can still only have one hundred Suboxone patients at any one time, so I can’t add any new patients.”

My patient was quiet for a moment and said, “So if an addict calls you because he just got insurance to pay for his treatment, you couldn’t see him anyway?”

“That’s right, unless I lost a patient for some reason, and had an open spot for him.”

“So even if addicts get insurance, they can’t use it? That’s crazy. Why does the government have that law?”

I explained to him about the newness of the DATA 2000 Act, and that some lawmakers were skittish about this program from the beginning. They were worried Suboxone “mills” would open, where hundreds of addicts were treated with little physician oversight or precautions.

Lifting that limit would be the easiest way to get more opioid addicts into treatment.

My private practice, where I treat opioid addicts with buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex), is a bare bones operation. Because of the one hundred patient limit, I have enough patients to keep me busy for one day per week. On the other days, I work at opioid treatment programs. I enjoy my own office practice because of the autonomy, and because I have some great patients that I’ve known for years. But at my own office, I make far less than half what I make at the opioid treatment programs.

I have the usual fixed overhead of rent, utilities, answering service, internet, etc., and most of the money I take in goes towards that. I have a part-time health care coordinator, who makes appointments for patients, calls them to remind them of appointments, does most of my office drug screens, screens my after-hours calls, handles the filing, copying and other record-keeping tasks, and deals with those pesky pre-authorization requests that insurance companies make. (She and the counselor have decided I ought not to be allowed to talk with the insurance companies, since I often erupt into profanity).Then I have the best LCAS (Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist) counselor in the world who works with me on Fridays, doing individual counseling (he’s my fiancé). Since I don’t file insurance, but rather give the patient a receipt so they can file it themselves, I avoid that personnel expense.

And I don’t accept Medicaid or Medicare as payment for treatment. I feel guilty for admitting that, but I don’t think I could stay in practice if I accepted what these government programs pay for treatment. When I first opened my own office in 2010, I saw a handful of these patients for free, since trying to file and going through the necessary red tape isn’t worth the pittance these programs pay for an office visit.

So if my uninsured patients get Medicaid, I’ll have to decide how to deal with that problem.

It’s not legal for me to ask patients with Medicaid and/or Medicare to pay for treatment out of their pocket unless I opt out of those programs completely for a period of years. I can’t do that because some of the other treatment facilities that I work for do bill Medicaid.

So do I start taking Medicaid, with all its headaches, red tape and low re-imbursement? I don’t know. I don’t like the thought of it, but it will perhaps become a necessity. It will depend on reimbursement rates. Plus, I’ll be paid even less since I don’t have electronic medical records. Government programs have decreed that doctors without meaningful use electronic medical records will receive less money for Medicaid/Medicare patients than doctors with these programs.

I’m not against electronic medical records. I use them effectively at both of the opioid treatment programs. One program is completely paperless, and I like that much more than I ever thought. But in my small, one hundred patient office, I can’t afford any software for medical records. It’s not practical or feasible

Since I was trained and still am board-certified as an Internal Medicine doctor, I could fill my other days with primary care patients. I was talking to another doctor who was starting her own Suboxone practice, and she was wondering how to get by financially, only practicing Addiction Medicine. She too is a former Internal Medicine doctor. I suggested she could always do some primary care.

“Just shoot me in the head,” she said, summarizing my feeling exactly. I’ve never liked primary care as much as addiction medicine, to put it mildly.

Addicts are easier to deal with, and are often nicer people than the average soccer mom, demanding an antibiotic to treat her viral upper respiratory infection. But my biggest reason for preferring addiction medicine is that addicts get better. I never saw the big changes in health when I worked in primary care, like I do in people treated for addiction. Primary care feels like a step backwards. I don’t want to go back to treating non-compliant diabetics, and overweight people who won’t exercise. I’d prefer to keep my present patients, in whom I see an intense desire to get well.

I’m addicted to seeing the big changes that I see when I work in addiction medicine. I hope the new changes in healthcare will allow me to stay in the business of helping people change. Like the rest of the U.S., I’ll have to wait and see.

Officially an Epidemic

 

It’s official. Prescription drug abuse in the U.S. is now called an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In November, CDC officials released a new report of prescription drug addiction. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6043a4.htm?s_cid=mm6043a4_w

It’s really interesting reading.

The CDC points out that prescription opioid overdose deaths now outnumber heroin and cocaine overdose deaths combined and prescription opioids were involved in 74% of all prescription drug overdose deaths.

The breakdown of their data by state is particularly interesting. The states with the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths are, in descending order: New Mexico, with a rate of 27 deaths per 100,000 people, then West Virginia, Nevada, Utah, Alaska, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Florida, Oklahoma, and Ohio. Tennessee missed the top ten, but was still 13th highest in overdose deaths, with a rate of 14.8. North Carolina’s rate was 12.9 per 100,000 people, which put North Carolina 24th out of 50 for prescription overdose deaths. That’s too high, but much improved since 2005, when North Carolina was in the top five states for prescription opioid overdose deaths. The lowest opioid overdose death rate was seen in Nebraska, with 5.5 deaths per 100,000 people.

The CDC also analyzed information about the amount of opioids prescribed in each state. They measured kilograms of opioid pain relievers prescribed per 10,000 people in each state. The state with the highest rate had over three times the rate of the state with the lowest rate. It’s no surprise that Florida had the highest amount, at 12.6 kilograms per every 10,000. Illinois had the lowest amount, at 3.7 kilograms per 10,000 people.

The big surprise: Tennessee has the second highest amount of opioids prescribed, adjusted by population. (OK, they tied for second place with Oregon). Yep. Tennessee, the state that refuses to allow more opioid treatment centers to be built within its borders, has 11.8 kilograms of opioids prescribed per every 10,000 people.  But since I want to devote an entire blog entry to Tennessee’s backward outlook on addiction and its treatment, I’ll defer further comments about that state.

Sales of prescription opioid quadrupled from 1999 to 2010. According to the CDC, enough opioids were sold last year to provide a month of hydrocodone, dosed 5mg every four hours, for each adult in the U.S.

The CDC estimates that for every prescription overdose death, there are at least 130 more people who are addicted or abuse these medications, and 825 who are “nonmedical users” of opioids. (I’m still not sure how nonmedical users differ from abusers. To me, if it’s nonmedical, that’s abuse.) Not all of the 825 are addicted or will become addicted – but they are certainly at risk.

Just like what was found in other studies, people who abuse opioids are most likely to get them for free from a friend or relative. So if you are giving pain pills to your friends or family members, you are part of this large problem.

In 2008, 36,450 people died from prescription overdose deaths. That was nearly equal to the number of people who died in auto accidents, at 39,973. In fact, in seventeen states, the number of overdose deaths did exceed auto accident deaths.

The CDC authors conclude that the prescription opioid addiction isn’t getting any better, and in measurable ways, it’s worsened, with some states worse than others. The worst areas, not surprisingly, have higher rates of opioid prescribing that can’t be explained by differences in the population. To me, this means doctors in some states are overprescribing, or at least aren’t taking proper precautions when they do prescribe opioids.

In my next blog entry, I’ll explain how people and organizations in North Carolina have been working hard to deal with the prescription pain pill addiction problem. Based on information from the CDC, it appears my state has made some major progress, at least compared to one of our neighboring states.

Tapering off Methadone or Buprenorphine (Suboxone): Pain and Relapse

Physical pain is a relapse trigger for recovering opioid addicts, especially after they’ve tapered off maintenance medications. While on maintenance medications, most patients can no longer get high from opioids, and so are less likely to take prescribed opioid medication in destructive ways. Once off maintenance medications, patients can again feel euphoria from opioids, even when taking opioid medications as prescribed. This can lead to medication misuse and eventual relapse back into active addiction.

Pain can be acute (think broken bones or a kidney stone), or more chronic and persistent, as in chronic back pain. Acute pain by definition resolves within a short time, and there are ways to reduce the risk of relapse for the relatively short time opioids are necessary. Before a patient on maintenance medications (methadone or Suboxone) even begins a taper, he should have a clear plan for handling an acutely painful event.

Here are some ideas:

  • Tell the prescribing physician that you’ve had problems with addiction to opioids in the past. Try to use a non-opioid pain medication if possible
  • If you have to take opioids, ask the doctor to prescribe fewer pills at a time, and have more frequent follow up visits, for more accountability
  • Have a dependable non-addict hold your pill bottle and dispense to you as prescribed.
  • Tell your circle of supporters, whether that’s friends, family, and/or your 12-step group members that you need to take pain pills, and could use extra support and accountability.
  • Read the booklet published by Narcotics Anonymous, “In Times of Illness”
  • Ask a dependable friend or family member to do daily pill counts for more accountability, if you don’t have someone that can hold your pill bottle

A patient with chronic pain obviously has a more complicated situation. Preferably, the recovering opioid addict can find some way to manage the chronic pain without opioids. If that’s possible, then the patient can slowly bring down their dose of methadone or buprenorphine, knowing that if pain returns, there’s a non-opioid way to managing it.

For a patient who can’t find an adequate non-opioid way to relieve chronic pain, staying on maintenance medications may be the best option. Methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone) prevent opioid withdrawal symptoms for longer than 24 hours in most patients, which is why we use them to treat addiction. But the anti-pain effect wears off at about six hours after dosing. Therefore, methadone and buprenorphine may not be ideal for pain management, but may be enough to bring the patient’s pain to manageable levels. For this reason, a patient with both pain and addiction may reasonably decide to stay on maintenance medications. If such a patient does taper off maintenance medications, every flare of pain is a potential relapse trigger.

For more on management of pain on maintenance medications like Suboxone and methadone, please see my blog entry of 10/16/11.

Great Book About Opioid Addiction!!!

I orginally started this blog to promote the book I wrote about pain pill addiction. As it’s turned out, the blog has been much more popular than the book (it isn’t exactly flying off the shelves), so I’d like to remind blog readers – again – that if you like the blog, you’ll love my book.

You can order it from Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. But I’m selling it for a much-discounted rate of $13.95 on EBay. That’s with shipping included.

http://shop.ebay.com/i.html_from=R40&_trksid=p5197.m570.l1313&_nkw=pain+pill+addiction&_sacat=See-All-Categories

National Prescription Drug Action Plan

Yesterday, government officials proclaimed the formation of collaborative plan to address this nation’s problem with prescription opioid abuse and addiction. Speakers included Mr. Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the ONDCP (Office of National Drug Control Policy), Dr. Howard Koh, from the department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Dr. Margaret Hamburg from the Food and Drug Administration ( FDA), and Ms. Michele Leonhart, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

 Speakers recited pertinent statistics regarding the state of opioid addiction and abuse in the U.S.  It’s now the faster growing public health problem in our country. Around 28,000 citizens died from unintentional drug overdose in 2007, the latest year for which data is available.  More people in the U.S. now die of unintentional drug overdose than gunshot wounds. In seventeen states and Washington D.C., unintentional overdose deaths outnumber deaths from motor vehicle accidents.

 The plan has four main points. First, both patients and prescribers of controlled substances will be provided with better education about these potentially dangerous medications. The drug manufacturers will be asked to develop educational products for both patients and providers for education, which will be reviewed by the FDA before approved for release. The medications included will likely include sustained-release oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydromorphone, and methadone. Fentanyl patches will also be included. The ONDCP is seeking to introduce legislation that will change the Controlled Substances Act in order to make training mandatory for doctors who prescribe long-acting opioids.

 Second, the national government will push the few remaining states that don’t have function prescription monitoring programs to put them in place, and to be able to share data with adjacent states.

 Third, the government will support more medication “take back” days in communities across the U.S. Citizens will be encouraged to bring old medication to community sites in order for proper disposal. Previous take back days have been very successful, with tons of pills collected and disposed. This will reduce the number of prescription opioid pills available for diversion. Surveys reveal that round 70% of the pills obtained by people misusing prescription medication for the first time are obtained from friends and family members, often without permission, from old prescription bottles.

 Fourth, state and federal agencies plan to crack down further on rogue doctors and clinics that are “pill mills.” This will require participation from state medical boards, law enforcement, and the DEA.

 At the end of this presentation, Karen Perry, founder of NOPE, told the story of her son, a bright young college student who died of an unintentional drug overdose. She described how his death affected her and his siblings. Her face was etched with the grief that can only come from such a profound loss

 The goal of this plan is to achieve a 15% reduction in prescription opioid misuse in this country by at within the next five years.

 I’m so pleased to see this announcement. Back in 2001, when I first started treating prescription opioid addiction, I was amazed at the numbers of people seeking treatment for this disorder. Studies since then have shown the situation has gotten much worse.

 There will be problems with this plan. Many doctors will not be happy they must have mandatory training in order to be able to prescribe some controlled substances (probably schedule II). Some will stand up on their hind legs and protest this new regulation, if it is passed by congress. But after seeing the prescribing habits of some of my brethren and sistren, it’s obvious we need this. We don’t get much education about appropriate prescribing of opioids, recognizing addiction, and referral for treatment. I’ve blogged before about this (see February 10th’s entry)

 I’ve been blathering on to anyone who will listen about the need for prescription monitoring plans (see prior blog entries for March 6, 8, and 31), so I’m delighted more attention is being paid to this. But I still worry about how states will communicate with each other. For example, my practice is close to South Carolina, yet that state has denied me access to their database. The only allow access to doctors licensed in South Carolina. I use the prescription monitoring program in my state both at the two Opioid Treatment Programs where I work and in my own office, where I see Suboxone patients. I’ve been using it since 2007.

I support the pill “take back” programs. While such events probably won’t do much for those with established addiction, they can help reduce the number of new users and experimental users. Remember, opioid overdose deaths don’t just happen to addicts. Youngsters experimenting with opioids can die from overdoses. In fact, new users dabbling with these pills, because they think they’re safer than “street” drugs, may be more likely to die because they don’t have any tolerance to opioids.

 We need good judgment and balance when shutting down pill mills. How can the DEA tell a pill mill from a legitimate pain treatment practice? I believe this is best done by other doctors. In this state, the medical board does investigations, which I feel is more appropriate than having investigations done by law enforcement. Law enforcement personnel just don’t have the training to tell the difference between appropriate care and careless prescribing with disregard for patients. Let other doctors do that. Granted, a few places will be so obvious that little investigation is needed.

 We don’t want the opioid pendulum to swing to the opposite side again, and become completely opioiphobic. These pain medications are addictive, but are also godsends in the right setting and used in the right way. Let’s take care not to throw out the good with the bad. The best people to set policy in this area are well-trained doctors who approach this issue with common sense and balance.

 Coming as late as it does in this epidemic, I could be negative and say the government has had an epiphany of the obvious. But I do know it takes time for all of these agencies to come together in a cooperative manner and form a plan of action. I’m just thankful that action is finally being taken.

Tramadol, AKA Ultram, Ultracet

I just returned from the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s spring conference, held in Washington, D.C. I go to at least one of their meetings every year, to stay current with the latest research and developments in Addiction Medicine. It was impossible to attend all of the sessions, since four or five meetings are often conducted at the same time. This makes it the intellectual equivalent of a three ring circus. I think I learned some new stuff, and will share some of this in my blog over the coming weeks.

The first day, I went to a day-long course called “Pain and Addiction: Common Threads.” I think this is the fourth time I’ve attended that particular seminar over the last eight years. I hear something new every year.

 It’s striking how much this meeting has changed. The first year I went was 2005. At that time, pain medicine specialists still debated with the addiction medicine specialists about the risk of addiction in patients who were prescribed opioids long-term for chronic non-cancer pain. By 2010, I didn’t hear any debates about the risk of addiction. I heard lectures about how to manage chronic pain without opioids, and about the risk of hyperalgesia in patients on long-term opioids. Hyperalgesia is an increased sensitivity to pain, sometimes seen in patients prescribed opioids for months or years. The human body accommodates to the presence of these prescribed opioids, which adjusts the pain threshold, making a patient on opioids paradoxically more sensitive to pain.

This year, the Pain and Addiction conference had lectures on several interesting topics, but one that captured my interest was about the not-so-safe “safe” medications. Included were carisoprodol (Soma), zolpidem (Ambien), butalbital (found in Fioricet and Fiorinal), and tramadol (Ultram). These are all medications that many doctors think are safe for addicts, but really aren’t all that safe.

I’ve seen many patients develop problems with tramadol, so the rest of this blog is about this medication.

Tramadol is a messy drug. It’s a pain reliever that has actions on several types of brain receptors: the mu opioid, serotonin, norepinephrine, NMDA, and other receptors. Because it stimulates the mu opioid receptors, it can cause feelings of pleasure as well as pain relief. Tramadol is far less active at the mu opioid receptors than its metabolite, and it takes time for the tramadol to be metabolized in the liver to its first metabolite. Because of this delay, some experts thought it wouldn’t appeal to addicts, who prefer an immediate high. Overall this is probably true, and tramadol has a much lower rate of addiction than other opioids, but it still causes addiction in some patients.

Some of tramadol’s pain relieving properties may also be produced by its actions on serotonin and norepinephrine receptors, since tramadol’s pain relieving capability is only partially reversed by a pure opioid antagonist like naloxone.

When this medication was first released, it wasn’t a controlled substance. That is, the DEA didn’t control it strictly like medications that can cause addiction. Now, it’s a Schedule IV drug, thought to have benefit but also some risk of addiction, though lower than that of hydrocodone, for example.

Tramadol is usually dosed in 50mg pills, one or two every six hours, giving the maximum dose of 400mg per day. Recreational use of this medication (to get high) is dangerous, since it causes seizures at doses higher than 400mg. In susceptible patients, it can even cause seizures at lower prescribed doses.

I’ve seen patients in tramadol withdrawal who were so sick it frightened me. This drug can produce a severe withdrawal. When it’s stopped suddenly, patients have opioid withdrawal symptoms like sweating, nausea, diarrhea, high blood pressure and heart rate, and severe muscle and joint pains. The sickest patient I’ve ever seen in opioid withdrawal had been using only tramadol, in doses of around 600mg per day. She had fever to 103 degrees, and dehydration from the diarrhea and vomiting. That patient needed hospitalization.

Besides the opioid-withdrawal symptoms, some of these patients also have withdrawal symptoms similar to those seen when certain serotonin-affecting antidepressants, like Paxil and Celexa, are stopped suddenly. They can have fairly severe anxiety, depression, mood swings, and restlessness. Many times they have weird sensory experiences, often called “brain zaps,” or the sensation of electric shocks throughout the body. They can have seizures during this withdrawal.

If the patient had only physical dependency and no addiction, the dose of tramadol can usually be tapered slowly over a few weeks to months, as an outpatient. But if the patient has not only physical dependency but also the disease of addiction, the obsession and craving for the medication will usually prevent a successful outpatient taper, unless a dependable non-addict holds the pill bottle, and dispenses it as prescribed.

Traditional treatment for tramadol addiction starts with detoxification. As above, that can rarely be done as an outpatient, so medical inpatient detoxification admissions for five to seven days can be helpful. However, since tramadol acts so much like an opioid, patients ready to leave detox probably need to go on to an inpatient residential treatment center for at least thirty days.  Intensive outpatient treatment probably isn’t enough support for these addicts. But that’s only my opinion, since I haven’t found any studies describing success rates with tramadol addicts.

Opioid maintenance medications like methadone and buprenorphine do stop the opioid-type withdrawal symptoms from tramadol, and patients probably benefit from medication-assisted therapy just like any other opioid addicts. Using these medications, they can be successfully treated as outpatients. However, as above, I can’t find any long-term studies of tramadol addicts on replacement medications. One of the addictionologists with whom I work doesn’t think it’s wise to put an addict who is addicted only to tramadol on methadone, given the lack of data. However, usually these addicts are using other opioids too, and physically addicted to them as well as tramadol.

Often, methadone patients at the opioid treatment centers where I work are given tramadol by their primary care doctors who think it’s a low risk medication for opioid addicts. It probably is lower in its risk for abuse, but it can cause withdrawal in patients on stable, blocking doses of methadone. (1)

Tramadol is a synthetic, pared-down version of codeine. Interestingly, a structurally similar medication, tapentadol, has just been released, and is now being sold under the brand name Nucynta. That medication is a schedule II drug, presumably because of a higher abuse potential than we’ve seen with tramadol. Tapentadol stimulates opioid mu receptors, and also acts as a norepinephrine re-uptake inhibitor, like some antidepressants. It will be interesting to follow abuse and addiction patterns with this medication.

The bottom line is this: if you are in recovery from addiction (alcohol or drugs) this medication should be used with caution. Let your doctor know that you’re in recovery from addiction. If you must take a potentially addicting medication, talk to your sponsor and your support network. Go to extra meetings. Let a dependable non-addict hold the pill bottle and dispense as prescribed. If you have to take the medication for more than a few weeks, have your doctor taper your dose instead of stopping suddenly.

I’ll have upcoming blog entries concerning Soma, Ambien, and Fioricet.

  1. Leavitt, MA, PhD, “Methadone-Drug Interactions,” Pain Treatment Topics, Addiction Treatment Forum, January 2006

Are Opioid Pill Addicts Different From Heroin Addicts?

Most of the opioid addicts I have treated over the last ten years have been addicted to pills, not heroin. But information about prognosis and treatment of opioid addiction was gleaned from studies with heroin addicts. I’ve often wondered if the old data fits the new patients.           

Over the last ten years, the number of people addicted to prescription opioids has ballooned. Prescription opioids are now more likely to cause or contribute to drug overdose deaths than heroin or cocaine. As prescription opioids outpace heroin in many parts of the country, scientists have wondered if there are significant differences between these prescription addicts and heroin addicts. Biologically, addiction to heroin or prescription opioids would appear to be the same disease, because both types of drugs are opioids, and opioids affect the body the same way. But do all opioid addicts respond the same to treatment?

 In the latest issue of Addiction, there was an article describing a study that compared different groups of opioid users. The researchers described four separate groups: opioid users of only heroin, opioid users of only prescription opioids, opioid users of both heroin and prescription opioids, and drug users that used only non-opioid drugs. In this study, drug users weren’t further classified as addicts, abusers, or occasional users. (1)

This study of over nine thousand drug users found that users of both prescription opioids and heroin were more likely to use other, non-opioid drugs than the other three groups. These addicts seemed to have worse mental health issues than the other groups, too, while users of non-opioid drugs tended to have less severe mental health issues than opioid addicts of all types.

The prescription opioid-only addicts were found to use significantly more non-opioid prescription drugs, while the heroin-only addicts were significantly less likely than prescription opioid addicts to abuse sedatives and tranquilizers, like benzodiazepines, than the other two groups of opioid users.

 This last fact definitely squares with what I’ve been seeing. So many of my patients are struggling or have struggled with benzodiazepine addiction. I wonder if opioid pill users are at increased the risk of overdose death when treated with methadone, compared to the heroin-only users of past decades.

This article, at the very least, shows there are significant differences in clinical features for at least three types of opioid users. It’s possible people who are addicted to prescription opioid pills have different prognoses and different responses to treatment than heroin-only addicts. Hopefully we’ll see further studies to guide our treatments.

1. Wu, LT; Woody, GE; Yang, C; Blazer, DG; “How Do Prescription Opioid Users Differ From Users of Heroin or Other Drugs in Psychopathology: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions,” Journal of Addiction Medicine, Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2011.

Suboxone: Miracle Drug or Manacle?

Yesterday in my office, I saw patients for whom I prescribe buprenorphine (better known under the brand name Suboxone). It was not my typically pleasant day. Usually, I see the positive changes occurring in the lives of my patients: they are getting families back, getting jobs or better jobs, getting health and dental care needs addressed, and overall feeling happier and more productive.

 But yesterday I had two patients who were bitter about being on Suboxone. Both were having great difficulty tapering off of Suboxone. Both had also been reading materials on the internet that described the hopelessness of ever tapering off this medication.

 This frustrates me for several reasons. First, not everything you read on the internet is correct. Second, people don’t appear in my clinic requesting Suboxone for no reason. All of my Suboxone patients were addicted to opioids before I ever prescribed Suboxone. Even assuming no patient ever gets off Suboxone, it’s still so much better than what they were doing before. Third, I’ve never said it’s easy to get off Suboxone. It can be done, but it’s still an opioid. When you stop opioids, you will have withdrawal. There’s no way around that. 

Overall, most people say withdrawal off Suboxone is easier than other opioids. But people and their biochemistries are different, and I accept that some people have a worse withdrawal than other people. I’ve had a few people say methadone withdrawal was easier than Suboxone withdrawal. I have to believe that’s their experience, but I think that’s unusual, and not the experience of most people. 

Some doctors think patients on maintenance medications, like methadone or Suboxone, should always stay on these medications, given what we know about the rates of relapse and even death for patients who leave these programs. And some patients have continued sub acute withdrawal symptoms for weeks or months off opioids, and just don’t feel right unless they are on maintenance medications. These people seem to do better if they stay on maintenance medication. 

And on the other hand, many people are able to taper off opioids and remain off of them, and lead happy, healthy lives. I keep thinking about two groups of recovering opioid addicts who do well off of all opioids, on no maintenance medications: members of 12-step recovery groups, and recovering medical professionals.

 Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen recovering opioid addicts who are members of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, and who aren’t on any maintenance medications. They feel fine, and have been abstinent from opioids for years. If you don’t believe me, go to an open Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Ask the recovering addicts there if they have been addicted to opioids in the past. Chances are that around a fourth of the people you talk to are recovering from opioid addiction. There may be a few people who are on methadone or Suboxone, but many are completely free from opioids.

 Look at doctors in recovery. Opioids were the drug of choice for many addicted doctors, and they are “real” addicts, having used remarkable amounts of opioids before getting into recovery. But doctors have one of the highest rates of drug-free recovery. This isn’t because we are so smart or special, or because we have Charlie Sheen’s tiger blood. It’s because we are held tightly accountable by our licensing boards. If we want to practice medicine, we have to participate in recovery. Licensing boards often hold our licenses hostage unless we do the work of recovery. This may mean three to six months of inpatient residential treatment, after a medical detoxification. It may mean four recovery meetings per week for the first five years of recovery, along with monthly random drug screen, and a monitoring contract for five years.  (1,2)

If every addict seeking recovery could have that degree of treatment and accountability, I suspect relapse rates would be uniformly low. Sadly, that’s just not possible for most opioid addicts, because of financial constraints, and because there’s less leverage with most people than with licensed professionals. 

Not all opioid- addicted doctors do great off opioids. Many have multiple relapses, and would probably be much healthier and happier if they got on maintenance medications like methadone or Suboxone, but isn’t allowed – at present – by the licensing boards in most states. Again, one type of treatment doesn’t work for everyone.

 My point is that it is possible for many people to get off Suboxone, and live a happy drug free life. And for other people, lifelong maintenance is probably the best and safest option. At present, we don’t have a way to predict who might do well off of Suboxone (or methadone). We do know that a taper should be slow, and probably takes four to six months for a taper to give best results.

 I believe in Suboxone. It’s saved many lives, just like methadone has. I wouldn’t prescribe it if I didn’t know it works. I think what I’ve been hearing and reading is a normal backlash against the unrealistic expectations many people had for Suboxone. It’s been called a miracle drug, but it’s not. It’s still an opioid, and there is still a withdrawal when it’s stopped. It’s a great medication for many people. It can allow many opioid addicts to get their lives back and enjoy a normal life, except for having to take a daily dose of Suboxone. But isn’t that still drastically better than active addiction? 

  1. Ganely, Oswald H, Pendergast, Warren J, Mattingly, Daniel E, Wilkerson, Michael W, “Outcome study of substance impaired physicians and physician assistants under contract with North Carolina Physicians Health Program for the period 1995-2000,” Journal of Addictive Diseases, Vol 24(1) 2005.
  2. McLellan, AT, Skipper, GS, Campbell, M, DuPont, RL, “Five Year outcomes in a cohort study of physicians treated for substance abuse disorders in the United States,” British Medical Journal,2008;337: a 2038.

Governor Scott’s Flamingo Express to Misery

Flamingo Express of Florida

All I could think was, “What can he be thinking???”

 I was reading an article about the governor of Florida and his bizarre decision to block the formation of a prescription monitoring program in his state. (1)

 Prescription monitoring programs are databases that contain lists of controlled substances a patient receives, the prescribing doctors, and the dispensing pharmacies. Usually, only approved physicians can get access to these databases. Prescription monitoring programs help prevent “doctor shopping,” which is the term describing the actions of a patient who goes from one doctor to another to get prescription pills, usually opioids, without telling the doctors about each other. Addicts do this to supply their ever-increasing tolerance for the drugs. Drug dealers do this to get pills to sell and make money.

 Forty-two states have approved the formation of prescription monitoring databases, and thirty-four states have operational databases. Florida was one of the last to approve the formation of such a program, in 2009, long after this recent wave of prescription pain pill addiction burned through the country. Now, the new Florida governor wants to cut this program out completely, before it even starts.

 How big of a deal is this?

In the latest survey, 5.3 million people in the U.S. used prescription pain pills nonmedically over the past month. This means they used them in ways not intended, or for reasons not intended by the prescriber… for example, to get high. In the last year, 2.2 million people misused these prescription pain pills for the first time. Our young people are particularly at risk; between 2002 and 2009, the percentage of 12 to 17 years olds misusing prescription opioids rose from 4.1% to 4.8%. Not all of these people will become addicted, thankfully. Some will only experiment, and be able to stop before addiction develops. Many won’t be able to stop taking pills, and will progress into the misery of addiction. Others will die of drug overdoses. (2)

 Why pick on Florida?

Florida is infamous for its pain clinics. As a reporter for Time Magazine pointed out, there are more pain clinics in South Florida than there are McDonald’s franchises. In 2009, 98 of the top 100 prescribers of oxycodone in the nation were all located in Florida. Altogether, these doctors prescribed 19 million dosage units of oxycodone in 2009. Estimates of the numbers of pain clinics located in South Florida vary, but most sources say between 150 and 175. (3, 4) Many of these clinics are “pill mills,” where doctors freely prescribe controlled substances with little regard to usual prescribing standards and guidelines.

 Are all these clinics pill mills?

No. Some of the pain clinics are legitimate, and their doctors follow best practice guidelines, providing quality care to patients with pain. But careful monitoring and screening for adverse events, including the development of addiction, takes time. A conscientious doctor, trying  to do a good job, isn’t going to be able to see fifty pain patients in one day.

 I’ve talked to addicts who were previously patients at these pill mills. They describe how they were shuffled through rapidly, sometimes not even seeing the doctor. Some addicts say they were asked what pills they wanted, and quickly written that prescription, with little or no conversation beyond that. That was the extent of the visit. 

But Florida’s problem doesn’t stay in Florida. Appalachian states like Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina all have addicts who buy these prescription pain pills after they’re transported out of Florida. The DEA sees so many pain pills being transported from Florida to Appalachian states that they call it the “Flamingo Express.” In one of the methadone clinics where I work, I’ve noticed a peculiar upswing in the reported use of Opana, a brand name for the drug oxymorphone. It’s not a drug I’ve seen prescribed much in NC. When I ask patients where the pills come from, many say, “Florida.”

 Governors of several states, including West Virginia and Kentucky, along with congressmen from New York and Rhode Island, have sent a letter to Florida’s Governor Scott, urging him to reconsider his decision to torpedo plans for a prescription monitoring program. Since the leading cause of death in West Virginians for those under the age of 45 is drug overdose, I can see why this governor is protesting Governor Scott’s poor decision. (4)

 It’s estimated that setting up a prescription monitoring program costs about one million dollars. The Florida Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Fund, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to raising money for the program, says on their website that they’ve already raised at least half of that from donations. Other states have received the Harold Rogers grant money, available from the federal government to set up these monitoring databases. This leads me to question the excuse of “budget cuts” as the reason for Governor Scott’s poor decision.

 I’ve also seen internet stories that mention the governor’s fear of invasion of privacy. This is a legitimate concern, but there are ways to safeguard the information in such a database, and laws that can regulate who has access. I’m no fan of the government peering into my business, but this database is essential, given the overwhelming numbers of people struggling with pain pill addiction. For a description of the ways in which the North Carolina prescription monitoring database has helped me help my patients, please see the preceding blog entry. It’s been a lifesaver.  

  1. http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2011-03-05/news/fl-prescription-drug-forum-20110305_1_pill-mills-prescription-drug-monitoring-program-attorney-general-pam-bondi (accessed 3/6/11)
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2010). Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-38A, HHS Publication No. SMA 10-4586Findings). Rockville, MD.
  3. Thomas R. Collins, Invasion of the Pill Mills in South Florida, Time, Tuesday, Apr. 13, 2010,  Ft. Lauderdale, FL
  4.  http://manchin.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?   ContentRecord_id=f62482b4-f6dd-4adc-8b49-1563d8fa605b&ContentType_id=ec9a1142-0ea4-4086-95b2-b1fc9cc47db5&Group_id=e3f09d56-daa7-43fd-aa8b-bd2aeb8d7777&MonthDisplay=2&YearDisplay=2011 (accessed 3/8/11)

Doctors Are Poorly Trained About Addiction and Recovery

Addiction? What addiction?

Most medical schools and residency programs place little emphasis on educating future physicians about addiction. A survey conducted by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) revealed that physicians are poorly trained to recognize and treat addictive disorders. (1)

CASA surveyed nine-hundred and seventy-nine U.S. physicians, from all age groups, practice settings, and specialties. Only nineteen percent of these physicians said they had been trained in medical school to identify diversion of prescribed drugs. Diversion means that the drug was not taken by the patient for whom it was prescribed. Almost forty percent had been trained to identify prescription drug abuse or addiction, but of those, most received only a few hours of training during four years of medical school. More shocking, only fifty-five percent of the surveyed doctors said they were taught how to prescribe controlled drugs. Of those, most had less than a few hours of training. This survey indicates that medical schools need to critically evaluate their teaching priorities.  

Distressingly, my own experience mirrors this study’s findings. My medical school, Ohio State University, did a better job than most. We had a classroom section about alcoholism, and were asked to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, to become familiar with how meetings work. But I don’t remember any instruction about how to prescribe controlled substances or how to identify drug diversion.

Is it possible that I’ve forgotten I had such a course? Well, yes. But if I can still remember the tediously boring Krebs cycle, then surely I would have remembered something juicier and more practical, like how to prescribe potentially addicting drugs. Similarly, less than half of the surveyed doctors recalled any training in medical school in the management of pain, and of those that did, most had less than a few hours of training.

Residency training programs did a little better. Of the surveyed doctors, thirty-nine percent received training on how to identify drug diversion, and sixty-one percent received training on identifying prescription drug addiction. Seventy percent of the doctors surveyed said they received instruction on how to prescribe controlled substances. (1)

This last finding is appalling, because it means that thirty percent of doctors received no training on how to prescribe controlled substances in their residency programs.  Could it be true that nearly a third of the doctors leaving residency – last stop for most doctors before being loosed upon the populace to practice medicine with little to no oversight – had no training on how to prescribe these potentially dangerous drugs? Sixty-two percent leaving residency had training on pain management. This means the remaining thirty-eight percent had no training on the treatment of pain.

Could it be that many of these physicians were in residencies or specialties that had no need to prescribe such drugs? No. The participating doctors were in family practice, internal medicine, OB/GYN, psychiatry, and orthopedic surgery. The study included physicians of all ages (fifty-three percent were under age fifty), all races (though a majority at seventy-five percent were white, three other races were represented), and all types of locations (thirty-seven percent urban, thirty percent suburban, with the remainder small towns or rural areas). This study reveals a hard truth: medical training programs in the U.S. are doing a poor job of teaching future doctors about two diseases that causes much disability and suffering: pain and addiction. (1)

 I remember how poorly we treated patients addicted to prescription medications when I was in my Internal Medicine residency program. By the time we identified a person as addicted to opioids or benzodiazepines, their disease was fairly well established. It didn’t take a genius to detect addiction. They were the patients with thick charts, in the emergency room frequently, loudly proclaiming their pain and demanding to be medicated. Overall, the residents were angry and disgusted with such people, and treated them with thinly veiled contempt. We regarded them more as criminals than patients. We mimicked the attitudes of our attending physicians. Sadly, I did no better than the rest of my group, and often made jokes at the expense of patients who were suffering in a way and to a degree I was unable to perceive. I had a tightly closed mind and made assumptions that these were bad people, wasting my time.

Heroin addicts were not well treated. I recall a discussion with our attending physician concerning an intravenous heroin user, re-admitted to the hospital. Six months earlier, he was hospitalized for treatment of endocarditis (infected heart valve). Ultimately his aortic heart valve was removed and replaced with a mechanical valve. He recovered and left the hospital, but returned several months later, with an infected mechanical valve, because he had continued to inject heroin. We discussed the ethics of refusing to replace the valve a second time, because we felt it was futile.

I didn’t know any better at the time. We could have started him on methadone in the hospital, stabilized his cravings, and then referred him to the methadone clinic when he left the hospital. Instead, I think we had a social worker ask him if he wanted to go away somewhere for treatment, he said no, and that was the end of that. Small wonder he continued to use heroin.

At a minimum, the attending physician should have known that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, and that it is treatable. The attending physician should have known how to treat heroin addiction, and how to convey this information to the residents he taught. Instead, we were debating whether to treat a man whose care we had mismanaged. Fortunately, he did get a second heart valve and was able to leave the hospital. I have no further knowledge of his outcome.

 Despite having relatively little training in indentifying and treating prescription pill addiction, physicians tend to be overly confident in their abilities to detect such addictions. CASA found that eighty percent of the surveyed physicians felt they were qualified to identify both drug abuse and addiction. However, in a 1998 CASA study, Under the Rug: Substance Abuse and the Mature Woman, physicians were given a case history of a 68 year old woman, with symptoms of prescription drug addiction. Only one percent of the surveyed physicians presented substance abuse as a possible diagnosis.  In a similar study, when presented with a case history suggestive of an addictive disorder, only six percent of primary care physicians listed substance abuse as a possible diagnosis. (2)

Besides being poorly educated about treatments for patients with addiction, most doctors aren’t comfortable having frank discussions about a patient’s drug misuse or addiction. Most physicians fear they will provoke anger or shame in their patients. Physicians may feel disgust with addicted patients and find them unpleasant, demanding, or even frightening. Conversely, doctors can feel too embarrassed to ask seemingly “nice” people about addiction. In a CASA study titled, Missed Opportunity, forty-seven percent of physicians in primary care said it was difficult to discuss prescription drug addiction and abuse with their patients, for whom they had prescribed such drugs. (2).

From this data, it’s clear physicians are poorly educated about the disease of addiction at the level of medical school and residency. Even when they do diagnose addiction, are they aware of the treatment facilities in their area? Patients should be referred to treatment centers who can manage their addictions. If patients are addicted to opioids, medications like methadone and buprenorphine can be a tremendous help.

  1. Missed Opportunity: A National Survey of Primary Care Physicians and Patients on Substance Abuse, Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, April 2000. Also available online at http://www.casacolumbia.org

2. Under the Rug: Substance Abuse and the Mature Woman, Center on Addiction and

Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 1998. Available online at http://www.casacolumbia.org

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