Archive for the ‘Prevent Addiction’ Category

Each State Gets a Report Card

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You have got the check this out…an organization called Trust For America’s Health, or TFAH, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation, has released a report called, “Prescription Drug Abuse 2013: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic.” You can find the report at their website at: http://www.healthyamericans.org

This report grades each state on its policies for managing the prescription pain pill epidemic.

The report begins with a description of the scope of the problem: current estimates say around 6.1 million U.S. citizens are either addicted to or misusing prescription medications. Sales of prescription opioids quadrupled in the U.S. since 1999, and so have drug overdose deaths. In many states, more people die from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle accidents. The costs of addiction and drug misuse are enormous; in 2011, a study estimated that the nonmedical use of prescription opioids costs the U.S. around 53.4 billion dollars each year, in lost productivity, increased criminal justice expenditures, drug abuse treatment, and medical complications.

The report identifies specific groups at high risk for addiction. Men aged 24 to 54 are at highest risk for drug overdose deaths, at about twice the rate of women, although the rate of increase in overdose deaths in women is worrisome. Teens and young adults are at higher risk, as are soldiers and veterans. (Please see my blog of October 19th for more information about veterans.) Rural residents are twice as likely to die of an overdose as urban residents.

TFAH’s report declares there are ten indicators of how well a state is doing to fix the opioid addiction epidemic. This report grades each of the fifty states by how many of these indicators each state is using. TFAH says these ten indicators were selected based on “consultation with leading public health, medical, and law enforcement experts about the most promising approaches.”

Here are their ten indicator criteria:
 Does the state have a prescription drug monitoring program?
 Is use of the prescription drug monitoring program mandatory?
 Does the state have a law against doctor shopping?
 Has the state expanded Medicaid under the ACA, so that there will be expanded coverage of substance abuse treatment?
 Does the state require/recommend prescriber education about pain medication?
 Does the state have a Good Samaritan law? These laws provide some degree of immunity from criminal charges for people seeking help for themselves or others suffering from an overdose.
 Is there support for naloxone use?
 Does the state require a physical examination of a patient before a prescriber can issue an opioid prescription, to assure that patient has no signs of addiction or drug abuse?
 Does the state have a law requiring identification to pick up a controlled substance prescription?

 Does the state’s Medicaid program have a way to lock-in patients with suspected drug abuse or addiction so that they can get prescriptions from only one prescriber and pharmacy?

I thought several of these were bizarre. Several are great ideas, but others…not so much. For example, I think a law against doctor shopping leads to criminalization of drug addiction rather than treatment of the underlying problem. The addicts I treat knew that doctor shopping was illegal, but still took risks because that’s what their addiction demanded of them. Such laws may be a way of leveraging people into treatment through the court system, however.

And where are the indicators about addiction treatment? Toward the very end of this report, its authors present data regarding the number of buprenorphine prescribers per capita per state, but make no mention of opioid treatment program capacity per capita for methadone maintenance. Buprenorphine is great, and I use it to treat opioid addiction, but it doesn’t work for everyone. And there’s no data about treatment slots for prolonged inpatient, abstinence-based treatment of opioid addiction.

Expanded Medicaid access for addiction treatment is a nice idea… but not if doctors opt out of Medicaid because it doesn’t pay enough to cover overhead. If expanded access is not accompanied by adequate – and timely! – payment to treatment providers for services rendered, having Medicaid won’t help patients. Doctors won’t participate in the Medicaid system. I don’t. I have a few Medicaid patients whom I treat for free. It’s cheaper for me to treat for free than pay for an employee’s time to file for payment and cut through red tape.

In one of the more interesting sections in this report, each state is ranked in overdose deaths per capita, and the amount of opioids prescribed per capita.

The ten states with the higher opioid overdose death rates are: West Virginia, with 28.9 deaths per 100,000 people; New Mexico, with 23.8 deaths per 100,000; Kentucky with 23.6, then Nevada, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri; then in eighth place is Tennessee, with 16.9 deaths per 100,000. In ninth and tenth places are Utah and Delaware. Florida came in at number 11, with 16.4 deaths per 100,000.

North Carolina placed 30th in overdose death rates. We’ve had a big problem with prescription drug overdose deaths. From 1999 until 2005, the death rate rose from4.6 per 100,000 to 11.4 per 100,000. But at least our rate has not increased since 2005. The rate in 2010 was still 11.4. It’s still way too high, but many agencies have been working together over the past six years to turn things around. In a future blog, I intend to list the factors I think helped our state.

Use of the ten indicators does appear to correlate with reduced rate of increase of overdose deaths. In other words, states with more laws and regulations have had a slower rise in overdose deaths than states with fewer laws and regulations, though there are some exceptions.

This report also compares states by the amount of opioids prescribed per year, in kilograms of morphine equivalents per state per 10,000 people. Florida, not surprisingly, came in at number one, with 12.6 kilograms per 10,000 people. Tennessee and Nevada tied for second and third place, with 11.8 kilos per 10,000 people. The next seven, in order, are: Oregon, Delaware, Maine, Alabama, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Washington. Kentucky was 11th, with 9.0 kilos per 10,000. North Carolina doctors prescribe 6.9 kilos of opioids per 10,000 people per year, in 27th place and less than the national average of 7.1 kilos.

It appears to me that amount of opioid prescribed per capita does correlate, somewhat, with overdose death rates.

Let’s look closer at Tennessee, the state who, just a few months ago, rejected a certificate of need application for an opioid treatment program to be established in Eastern Tennessee. In 1999, Tennessee had an overdose death rate that was relatively low, at 6.1 per 100,000 people. By 2005, it zoomed to 10.4 per 100,000 people, and by 2010, rocketed to 16.9 per 100,000 people, to be in the top ten states with highest overdose death rates. Furthermore, Tennessee is now second out of fifty states for the highest amount of opioids prescribed per 10,000 people. Only Florida beat out Tennessee. And lately Florida has made the news for its aggressive actions taken against pill mills, which may leave the top spot for Tennessee.

West Virginia is no better. It was the worst state, out of all fifty, for overdose deaths, at 28.9 per 100,000 people in 2010. Wow. If you think lawmakers are asking for help from addiction medicine experts…think again.

West Virginia legislators recently passed onerous state regulations on opioid treatment programs. That’s right, lawmakers with no medical experience at all decided what passed for adequate treatment of a medical disease. For example, they passed a law that said an opioid addict had to be discharged from methadone treatment after the fourth positive urine drug screen. In other words, if you have the disease of addiction and demonstrate a symptom of that disease, you will be turned out of one of the most evidence-based and life-saving treatments know to the world of medicine. West Virginia passed several other inane laws regulating the medical treatment of addiction.

Getting back to the TFAH study, the report calculates that there are 21.6 million people in the U.S. who need substance treatment, while only 2.3 million are receiving it. This report identifies lack of trained personnel qualified to treat addiction as a major obstacle to effective treatment.

This report makes the usual recommendations for improving the treatment of addiction in the U.S… They recommend:

 Improve prescription monitoring programs. Nearly all states have them, except for Missouri and Washington D.C.

States should be able to share information, so that I can see what medication my North Carolina patients are filling in Tennessee. Right now, I have to log on to a separate website to check patients in Tennessee, so it takes twice as much time. Tennessee is already sharing data with several other states, but not with North Carolina, or at least not yet.

TFAH also recommends linking prescription monitoring information with electronic health records.

 Easy access to addiction treatment.

Duh. The report accurate describes how underfunded addiction treatment has been, and says that only one percent of total healthcare expenditures were spent on addiction treatment. We know how crazy that is, given the expense of treating the side effects of addiction: endocarditis, alcoholic cirrhosis, hepatitis C, gastritis, cellulitis, alcoholic encephalopathy, emphysema, heart attack, stroke, pancreatitis, HIV infection, gastrointestinal cancers, lung cancer…I could go on for a page but I’ll stop there.

Access to treatment is limited by lack of trained addiction professionals. Doctors abandoned the field back in 1914, when it became illegal to treat opioid addiction with another opioid. Even with the dramatic success seen with methadone and buprenorphine treatment of opioid addiction, there are relatively few doctors with expertise in this treatment.

This reports shows that two-thirds of the states have fewer than six physicians licensed to treat opioid addiction with buprenorphine (Suboxone) per 100,000 people. Iowa has the fewest, at .9 buprenorphine physicians per 100,000 people, and Washington D.C. had the most, at 8.5 physicians per 100,000 people.

North Carolina has 3.2 buprenorphine physicians per 100,000 people, while Tennessee has 5.3 physicians per 100,000. This makes Tennessee look pretty good, until you discover than many of Tennessee’s physicians only prescribe buprenorphine as a taper, refusing to prescribe it as maintenance medication. If these doctors reviewed the evidence, they would see even three month maintenance with a month-long taper gives relapse rates of around 91% (1)

I’m really bothered by the lack of attention to the number of methadone treatment slots per capita. That’s information I’d really like to have. But the authors of this report did not deign to even mention methadone. Even with forty-five years’ worth of data.

**Sigh**

 Increased regulation of pill mills.

 Expand programs to dispose of medications properly. In other words, make sure citizens have a way to get rid of unused medication before it’s filched by youngsters trying to experiment with drugs.

I know many tons of medications have been turned in on “drug take-back” days. But I’ve never seen any data about how much medication is addictive and subject to abuse, versus something like outdated cholesterol lowering pills.

 Track prescriber patterns. Another benefit of prescription monitoring programs is that officials can identify physicians who prescribe more than their peers. Sometimes there’s a very good reason for this. For example, a doctor who works in palliative care and end-of-life care may appropriately prescribe more than a pediatrician.

I get uneasy about non-physicians evaluating physicians’ prescribing habits, though. I think this is best left up to other doctors, enlisted by the state’s medical board to evaluate practices. Other doctors are better able to recognize nuances of medical care that non-physicians may not understand.

 Make rescue medication more widely available. In this section, the report’s authors make mention of Project Lazarus of Wilkes County, NC, a public health non-profit organization dedicated to reducing opioid overdose deaths, not only in that county, but state-wide. Project Lazarus is well-known to me, since I work at an opioid treatment program in Wilkes County.

 Ensure access to safe and effective medication, and make sure patients receive the pain medication they need. Obviously, we want opioids available to treat pain, especially for acute pain. Hey, you don’t have to convince me – read my blog from this summer about how grateful I was for opioids after I broke my leg. Opioids were a godsend to me in the short-term, and knowing what I do about opioids, I didn’t use them after the pain subsided.

It was an interesting report, though I saw some unfortunate gaps in their information, particularly regarding opioid addiction treatment availability.

But at least this is another agency looking at solutions and making some helpful recommendations.

1. Weiss et al, “Adjunctive Counseling During Brief and Extended Buprenorphine-Naloxone Treatment for Prescription Opioid Dependence,” Archives of General Psychiatry, 2011;68 (12):1238-1246.

The Drug Czar Praises Project Lazarus

On Wednesday, August 22, the Drug Czar came to town.

Mr. Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the ONDCP (Office of National Drug Control Policy) gave the keynote speech at the Project Lazarus Symposium held in Wilkesboro, NC.

Being a drug czar isn’t as much fun as it sounds like it might be. It means Mr. Kerlikowske works hard helping to create the drug control strategy for the nation. His agency advises the president regarding drug-control issues, and sets the tone for the nation’s approach to drug addiction and treatment. For more information see my blog of April 20th, 2011. At the Project Lazarus Symposium in Wilkesboro, Mr. Kerlikowske gave the keynote speech and elaborated on these topics.

The Drug Czar came to Wilkesboro because of the impressive program Project Lazarus. Project Lazarus is a grass-root, non-profit organization established in 2008 in response to the very high rates of opioid overdose deaths in Wilkes County. That county had one of the highest drug overdose death rates in the entire nation, but over the last four years, those rates have dropped dramatically. For more data about these rates and about Project Lazarus, go to their website at:  http://projectlazarus.org

The ONDCP has placed more emphasis on prevention and treatment, acknowledging that law enforcement efforts alone won’t fix our nations’ problems. During his keynote address, Mr. Kerlikowske praised Project Lazarus and said it should be used as a model for communities in other states facing the same problem of overdose deaths.

Project Lazarus’ founder and CEO, Fred Brason, gave an overview of the components of the program and most recent data. Then Mr. Kerlikowske spoke for about twenty minutes, explaining the ONDCP’s vision for drug control policy. Then came a roundtable discussion where parties from various agencies and organizations explained their role with the project.

I was invited to the roundtable because I am the medical director at Mountain Health Solutions, an opioid treatment program in North Wilkesboro that prescribes both buprenorphine and methadone to treat patients with opioid addiction. This OTP is now owned by CRC Health, but was started by Dr. Elizabeth Stanton nearly three years ago, in response to the need for medication- assisted treatment in Wilkes County. At first, her program prescribed only buprenorphine, but later she saw the need for methadone for those patients for whom buprenorphine didn’t work.

I started working there relatively recently. I’ve been amazed at the number of patients presenting for treatment for pain pill addiction, nearly all of whom live in this relatively small community. At present we have more than three hundred and fifty patients enrolled in treatment.

As part of Project Lazarus, all of our patients receive a prescription for (free) naloxone kit to prevent opioid overdose deaths. I was invited to the Project Lazarus Symposium because in my blog on March 28th, 2012, I described how a patient of our OTP clinic saved a relative’s life by using one of the kits.

At the roundtable, I said a few words about the effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment using buprenorphine and methadone, and then made a few comments about the overdose death that was prevented with the naloxone kit.

Next, during the roundtable discussion, representatives from many different organizations and locations across North Carolina described the role Project Lazarus plays in their missions. Representatives from such disparate populations as the Cherokee Nation and the military at Ft. Bragg described how they used Project Lazarus’ programs to keep patients safer. Several epidemiologists gave information about the lowered overdose death rates in Wilkes County. A local doctor explained how doctors have revised their prescribing of opioids in the Emergency Department. We also heard from several people connected with the Harm Reduction Coalition, and from the county’s sheriff.

Representatives from state organizations such as the Governor’s Institute on Substance Abuse, the North Carolina Medical Board, the NC Department of Health and Human Services, and the NC Division of Public Health, Injury and Prevention all explained how they worked with Project Lazarus. For example, a portion of Project Lazarus’ activity has been to encourage physicians to sign up for – and use – our states’ prescription monitoring program.

We heard about the Chronic Pain Initiative, a program developed with the help of Project Lazarus, which helps educate physicians about the best practices of opioid prescribing. Initially meant for Medicaid patients, the Chronic Pain Initiative is now available to help all patients.

This initiative helps reduce overdose deaths by providing physicians with, among other things, a toolkit for healthcare providers. It gives them everything from evidence-based information about safe opioid prescribing to a form that can be filled out to gain access to the NC CSRS. It contains worksheets, flow sheets, and addiction screening tools. It contains everything a doctor could want to keep patients on opioids as safe as is possible, while still making opioids available for patients who need them.

I’ve blogged about this program in the past. I knew there was more to Project Lazarus than distribution of naloxone rescue kits, but I didn’t know the full extent of the Projects activities in the state. At Wednesday’s program, I was impressed as professionals from organizations across the state explained how Project Lazarus helps them prevent, intervene, and treat opioid addiction, and reduce overdose deaths.

I was inspired with the depth of knowledge and commitment of all of these people, and by their collaborative spirit. People in all strata of the community cared enough about overdose deaths that they were trying to fix the problem before more lives are lost. These groups were cooperating, which is essential. Both Gil Kerlikowske and Fred Brason took pains to emphasize the importance of working together and not against each other.

In other words, naloxone kits aren’t enough to fix the epidemic of opioid overdose drug deaths. Law enforcement can’t arrest our way out of this problem. Prescription monitoring programs aren’t enough to stop all drug diversion. It takes the sustained efforts of people different segments of the community, working together, to get results. No one intervention is enough. That was the bottom line message I got from the Project Lazarus Symposium and the Drug Czar.

Check Out CASA’s New Free Publication

If you’ve never browsed CASA’s website, you need to do so. CASA, which stands for Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, at Columbia University, has helpful information about addiction and its treatment that you can download for free. They have information about how to reduce the risk of addiction in teens (“The Importance of Family Dinners” series), information about the cost and impact of untreated addiction on society ( “Shoveling Up”), in formation about substance abuse and the U.S. prison population (“Behind Bars” series), and the availability of drugs on the internet (the “You’ve got Drugs” series). All of these contain useful and thought-provoking data.

This summer, they published a masterpiece: “Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice.” I’ve read most of this book, and admire the clarity and call to action it presents. This publication outlines all aspects of what is wrong with addiction treatment in the U.S., and how to fix it.

Every politician should read it. Every parent should read it. Physicians and treatment center personnel should read it. Anyone who is concerned about the extent of addiction and its poor treatment in the U.S. should read it.

CASA describes their key findings of the drawbacks of the U.S. system – or non-system – of addiction treatment. This nation is doing many things wrong, to the detriment of people afflicted with addiction, their families and their communities. Our mistakes are based on ignorance, misperceptions, and prejudice. All of these impede our ability to help our people with addiction. The CASA report clearly describes these factors, saying they all contributed to our present situation. We have declared a war on people who use drugs, not on drugs.

The CASA report describes how public opinion about addiction isn’t based on science. We now have science that proves addiction is a brain disease. We know that continued use of addicting substances alters the structure and function of the brain, affecting judgment and behavior about the continued use of drugs even when bad consequences occur. We know that at least half of the risk for developing addiction is determined by one’s genetic makeup. Yet surveys show that about a third of U.S. citizens still feel addiction is due to lack of willpower and self-control. Why are public attitudes so disconnected from science?

Addiction is a complicated diagnosis, existing as it does at the end of the continuum from occasional drug use to regular use to compulsive use. People often compare a drug user with a drug addict. They say that since the drug user was able to stop when he wanted that the drug addict should be able to stop when he wanted. This compares apples to oranges. If someone can comfortably stop using drugs when given a good enough reason to do so, this person isn’t an addict. They may be a drug abuser, a problem user, and at high risk for addiction, but they haven’t crossed the line into uncontrollable use.

The CASA report illuminates what addiction medicine physicians have been saying for years: addiction treatment and prevention isn’t treated by physicians and health professionals. Most addiction treatment is provided by counselors who, for the most part, aren’t required to have any medical training. Only six states require a bachelor’s degree to become an addiction counselor, and only one (Alabama, go figure) requires a master’s degree.

Even when physicians are involved in the treatment of addiction, most of us have very little, if any, training in medical school or residencies about addiction prevention or treatment. Ironically, most of our training focuses on treating the consequences of addiction.

In medical school and residency, I spent countless hours learning about the proper treatment of cirrhosis, gastritis, anemia, pancreatitis, dementia, and peripheral neuropathy from alcohol addiction. I had little if any training about how to treat alcohol addiction, and none about how to prevent it.

We know brief interventions by physicians during office visits can reduce problem drinking and are an effective way to prevent problems before they occur. Yet few physicians are trained to do this brief intervention. Even if they are trained, primary care physicians and physician extenders are being asked to do more and more at each visit with patients, and asked to do it with less and less time. Often, primary care providers aren’t paid to do brief interventions, and an opportunity for prevention is lost. Yet that same patient may consume hundreds of thousands of healthcare dollars during only one hospital admission for the consequences of with alcohol addiction.

When I practiced in primary care, I often thought about how I never got to the root of the problem. I felt like I was slapping Band-Aids on gaping wounds. I would – literally – give patients with addiction strikingly absurd advice. “Please stop injecting heroin. You got that heart valve infection from injecting heroin and you need to quit.” I could see it was ineffective, but I didn’t know any better way at the time. I thought if there was a better way to treat patients, I’d have learned about it in my training.

Wrong. Instead, I learned about this vast body of scientific literature about addiction treatment by accident, when I worked at an addiction treatment center for a few days, covering for a doctor friend of mine.

In coming blogs, I’ll outline more of the points made by this timely publication. In the meantime, read it for yourself at  http://www.casacolumbia.org

Information from the ASAM Conference: the CDC

At the recent ASAM conference, Dr. Ileana Arias, Deputy Director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke at a plenary session, explaining the public health impact of our epidemic of prescription drug abuse and addiction. She did a great job explaining how bad the problem of opioid addiction has become in the U.S. She also had some great slides. The above slide shows how by 2008, poisonings overtook motor vehicle accidents as the number one cause of death in the U.S. Overwhelmingly, the poisonings were drugs, and the vast majority of these drug overdose deaths involved opioids. Dr. Arias explained the ice berg phenomenon, where for each person who dies from opioid overdose death, an estimated 118 are estimated to meet the diagnosis for opioid abuse and dependency. She presented information showing that the amount of prescription opioids sold quadrupled between 1999 and 2010.

Dr. Arias spoke at our conference to encourage us and to let us know the CDC was committed to help solve our nation’s prescription opioid addiction problem.

She outlined some of the measures the CDC is taking to help prevent opioid addiction and overdose deaths.  She explained the new lock-in programs now being used by some insurance companies, where the patient can have only one doctor and one pharmacy to prescribe and fill medications. The CDC is advocating for all states to have prescription monitoring programs, and for those state programs to be linked, so that a doctor can access medications filled in other states.

Dr. Arias mentioned the progress being made in Florida, where pill mills are being shut down. Unfortunately, some pill mills have moved to other states like Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, Ohio, and – my favorote state to criticize – Tennessee.

She also spoke of the success of medication take-back days, where people drop off old medication for appropriate disposal so that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, and she described many other actions the CDC has started.

This was all great information, familiar to those of us treating opioid addiction over the past five to ten years. I’m grateful the CDC has joined the effort to quelch this problem. Their resources and experience can help a great deal. I just wish all doctors in the country could hear her message.

The addiction medicine doctors had a chance to make comments and further suggestions to the CDC through Dr. Arias, and I was pleased to see how carefully she listened.

One of the suggestions I liked the best addressed the expense of maintaining state prescriptoin monitoring programs. Apparently these can cost around a million dollars a year to administer. One doctor said why not have the pharmaceutical companies that make and sell controlled substances pay or help pay for the monitoring programs? These companies are the main entities that have benefitted from the sales and diversion of their products; why not ask them to bear at least some of the cost for detecting the problems they cause? Genius, though it would be hard to mandate the pharmaceutical companies to do this.

One doctor suggested that law enforcement personnel be educated about the types of treatment available to opioid addicts, so they can stop being barriers toward effective treatments, namely medication-assisted treatments using buprenorphine and methadone.

Another doctor suggested the CDC promote the naloxone programs that provide kits to reverse fatal opioid overdoses. Why not help fund these projects and/or help create more? The Harm Reduction Coalition estimates there are around 155 naloxone programs in the U.S. Some are government-funded and some are privately funded, but around 10,000 fatal opioid overdoses have been reversed. Like Project Lazarus in North Carolina, many of these programs started at a grass roots level because citizens got involved.

Another doctor made the extremely common sense suggestion that the best way to allow more patients into suboxone treatment would be to allow doctors to treat more than one hundred patients at a time. At present, suboxone doctors are allowed to have no more than thirty patients on buprenorphine in their first year prescribing, and no more than one hundred after the first year. This would cost next to nothing for the government to implement, and expand treament dramatically.

One of our past ASAM presidents endorsed mandatory physician education as a requirement for maintaining medical license.

One person compared the prescription opioid addiction to HIV infection in past years, and commended the CDC on its past efforts to reduce the stigma associated with having HIV. This person asked the CDC to make public service announcements to help reduce the stigma of addiction, and encourge people to get treatment.

Another doctor asked the CDC to produce public service announcements telling people to lock up their medications, to prevent medication diversion to a teen or other person for whom it was not prescribed. This doctor also said that patients need to know that not all pain conditions require prescription opioids. He recommended telling the general public the true risks of opioid addiction, which have been downplayed. In the past, pain medicine experts underestimated the incidence of addiction in patients prescribe opioids for chronic pain for more than three months.

The CDC representative, Dr. Arias, confirmed that the CDC already has plans to make PSAs about pain pills and pain pill addiction, much like their present (and very successful) anti-smoking television PSAs.

All great information, and now let’s get the word out to all physicians, and the public too.

New Controls on Opioid Prescribing

As discussed in my last blog entry, prescription monitoring programs will help diminish our present-day epidemic of prescription opioid addiction, but these PMPs are just a start. State and federal governments are passing other laws, with the intent to reduce pain pill addiction.

For example, over the summer, Ohio enacted legislation aimed at physicians who primarily see patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain. Doctors prescribing opioids for more than 50% of their patients are now required to take periodic continuing medical education classes about the safe prescribing of opioids. These physicians are required to take a minimum of twenty hours of training every two years. Ohio also now says that physicians who own pain practices need to register with their medical board and undergo site inspections, as well as comply with patient-tracking requirements. Six other states now mandate doctors get yearly continuing education on pain management and the safe prescribing of opioids to maintain licensure from their medical boards.

Some doctors protest these measures, but this training is intensely needed. More than ten years ago, CASA (Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University) did a study that showed physicians are poorly trained to recognize and treat addictive disorders. Of doctors who were surveyed about the training they received in their residency programs, 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)

These findings are appalling. Thirty percent of doctors received no training on how to prescribe controlled substances in their residency programs.  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.

 These doctors weren’t in specialty care. They 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 shows that medical training in the U.S. does not, at present, do a good job of teaching doctors about two diseases that causes much disability and suffering: pain and addiction.

 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.

From this data, it’s clear physicians are poorly educated about the disease of addiction, as well as the safe treatment of pain. Medical schools and residencies need to critically re-evaluate their teaching priorities to include training in pain management and addiction. Until that can be done, states need to mandate yearly training for physicians on these topics, because most practicing physicians never got adequate training on these topics.

Most doctors are not happy about these government mandates. It’s human nature to resent being told you need more training, especially if it’s at your own expense. It’s difficult to get time off work for trainings and it’s inconvenient. Yet the alternative – no increase in training for practicing physicians – isn’t acceptable. The addiction rate is too high in this country to ignore, or to avoid taking actions.

Not all of the new state mandates are good ideas.

The state of Washington passed a law in 2010 that took effect in July of this year. It says only pain management specialists can prescribe more than the equivalent of 120mg of morphine per day for a patient. Non-pain management doctors cannot prescribe more than this, by law.

I think it’s alarming when lawmakers set dose limits for any medication. I don’t know of any other medication in any other state that has a dose limit set by non-physicians.

I assume Washington’s lawmakers had good intentions. They’re concerned about the rising numbers of opioid overdose deaths in their state. They based the cut-off of 120mg of morphine on a study (Annals of Internal Medicine, Jan 19, 2010) that showed patients taking more than 100mg of morphine, or its equivalent, were nine times more likely to have a drug overdose than those prescribe 20mg or less. But these lawmakers aren’t equipped to understand the real life complications that may occur due to this law. Government officials have already admitted they don’t know how patients will be able afford to see pain specialists, or even be able to find a specialist, since there aren’t enough pain specialists in that state. The government’s website explaining the new rules (3) also admits there are no lists of physicians pain specialists. I couldn’t find the state’s definition of a “pain specialist” on this website, so there will be confusion as to what this even means. If it means only doctors who are board-certified in pain management, that will surely be a very small number. Some doctors have said they will avoid prescribing opioids at all, given the additional regulatory burdens.

Other critics of this new law say it gives false gives reassurances to patients and doctors that doses under the 120mg cutoff are safe. We know that’s not true. Many times the danger lies in other medications, like benzodiazepines, that are prescribed with opioids.

This same law goes into great detail about how pain patients are to be screened before opioids for chronic pain are started, and how patients who are prescribed opioids are to be managed. Patients must be screened for past addiction, and for depression and anxiety disorders. The law outlines how patients are to be followed by their doctors. Washington’s lawmakers also mandate random urine drug screening of patients being prescribed opioids, and written patient agreements. The law gets in to specific details about what needs to be in the patient monitoring agreement.

Some doctors feel the government has overstepped its bounds and will interfere with physicians’ clinical judgments. Patients are already complaining that they have great difficulty finding doctors who will prescribe opioids to adequately treat their pain.

I support most legislation that helps physicians identify and treat opioid addiction, but I think Washington’s law has gone too far. Balanced, rational decisions are urgently needed. If we over-react out of fear, the pendulum will swing too far to the other side. Over-regulation could have unintended consequences including having patient in acute or pain or with cancer pain unable to get an adequate prescription for opioids.

  1. 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
  3.  http://www.doh.wa.gov/hsqa/Professions/PainManagement/

Things You Can Do to Reduce the Impact of Addiction in Your Community

Sometimes it’s frustrating to hear repeatedly on the news that opioid addiction is such a problem. It’s easy to feel helpless about the situation, and doubtful about how you can help. In this blog entry, I’m going to describe some very specific things you can do to reduce the impact of addiction on our society.

  • If you are an addict, get help immediately. Many people have so much shame about becoming addicted that they’re mortified to seek help, fearing the stigma attached to addiction and to an admitted addict, so it takes tremendous courage to admit you have this problem. If you are getting medications from your doctor, tell her the truth. Tell her you are misusing the medicine and need help. She should be able to guide you to an appropriate addiction treatment center, to get an evaluation. At a good treatment center, you should be informed of all of your treatment options. This should include information on both medication-free treatment and medication-assisted treatment.
  • If you are doctor shopping for prescriptions, stop it now. As more and more doctors use their states’ prescription monitoring database, sooner or later you will be discovered by one of your doctors. In my state of North Carolina, doctor shopping is a felony, because it’s considered using false pretenses to get a controlled substance. Instead, get treatment. If you’re selling these medications, stop it before you go to jail or kill someone.
  • Get rid of all old medication in your cabinets, especially if they are controlled substances like opioid pain pills, sedatives, sleeping pills, or stimulants. According to a recent survey, most young people got their first opioid drug from friends or family. Many times, they took what they found in their parents’ medicine cabinets, or in their friends’ parents’ medicine cabinets. Some communities have regular “drug take back” days, where people bring unused medication for disposal. If you don’t have these in your community, you can wet the pills and mix them with coffee grounds or cat litter, and then throw them in the garbage. The coffee grounds and cat litter will deter addicts looking for medication. Don’t flush pills in the toilet, because there are fears the medication can enter our water supply.
  • Don’t share your medication, with anyone, even family. In this country, sharing medication is so common people don’t realize it’s a crime. Some people feel that if it’s their medicine, and they bought it, they have the right to do with it what they want. This isn’t true. Giving controlled substances to another person is a crime, and dangerous as well. Selling a controlled substance is even worse. Speak up to friends and family, letting them know you don’t think it’s OK for Aunt Bea to give Jimmy one of her Xanax pill because his nerves are bad today. Jimmy needs to see his own doctor.
  • Give your children clear and consistent anti-drug messages. Don’t glamorize your own past drug use, including alcohol, by telling war stories. It should go without saying, though I’m going to say it: don’t use drugs with your kids, including alcohol and marijuana. Also, don’t err in the opposite direction, and exaggerate the harms of drug use, because you’ll lose credibility with your kids. Some may remember how the film “Reefer Madness” was mocked. Talk to your kids in an age-appropriate way about drugs and alcohol, even if they don’t appear to be listening.
  • If you have a family member addicted to prescription medication, call their doctor to describe what you see. The doctor probably can’t discuss your relative’s treatment, unless given permission, but your doctor can accept information. Write a letter, and be specific with what you’ve witnessed. If your loved one runs out of medication early and then buys off the street, let the doctor know.
  • If you feel your addicted loved one is seeing an unscrupulous doctor, report what you know to your state’s medical board. These professional organizations are the best equipped to review a doctor’s pattern of care, to decide if the doctor is prescribing inappropriately. Charts are often reviewed by other doctors who decide if the standard of care is being met.
  • Underage drinking is serious. For each year you can postpone your child’s first experimental drug use, including alcohol, you reduce his risk of addiction by around five percent. (1) Don’t involve your kids in your own alcohol consumption; for example, don’t send you kids to the refrigerator to get you a beer. Don’t allow adolescents to drink in your house, fooling yourself with the idea of, “At least I know where they are.” Not only is it illegal, but it’s harmful.
  • Don’t use drugs or alcohol to treat minor emotional discomfort, unless you have discussed it with your doctor. For example, don’t use pain pills to help you sleep. Don’t use the Xanax your doctor prescribed for your fear of flying to treat the sadness you feel from breaking up with a boyfriend. Try to get out of the mindset that there’s a pill for every bad feeling, and try to help your friends and family see this, too.
  • See a doctor for the treatment of serious mental illness. Some mental disorders are so severe that they require medication. There are many non-addicting medications that treat depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. Getting the appropriate treatment has been shown to decrease your risk of developing an addiction to alcohol and other drugs.
  • Monitor your adolescent’s friends. Youngsters with friends who use drugs are more likely to begin using drugs. Of course, most youngsters who experiment with drugs and alcohol won’t develop addiction, but the younger experimentation begins, the more likely it is that addiction will develop. Older siblings can be a good or harmful influence.

1.  Richard K. Ries, David A. Fiellin, Shannon C. Miller, and Richard Saitz, Principles of Addiction Medicine, 4th ed. (Philadelphia, Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins, 2009) ch.99, pp1383-1389.

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