Guest Blogger: Thoughts on Roadside Suboxone Signs

This is not a picture of Daniel Rhodes. But if he were a dog, he might look like this.

 

It is with delight that I present a guest blogger who has volunteered to give his thought on the roadside Suboxone signs that I blogged about several weeks ago.

I’m also delighted that I get to take a week off blogging, and hope all my readers have a great holiday weekend.

Daniel Rhodes is an LCAS-A and LPC-A working in both an OTP and a private Office Based Practice. He had a background in Abstinence-Based treatment models, and has, over the years, come to believe strongly in MAT. He believes in the importance of both approaches and that each has much to learn from the other.

When I first saw a sign on the side of the road advertising Suboxone, I reacted strongly enough to take a picture to show at work and marvel over. I discussed the issue with Dr. Burson, and realized my initial reaction was incomplete.  My gut told me that there was something off about the situation, that there was something unethical or below-board happening, but I could not understand why that might be.  I believe pretty strongly in a Harm-Reduction approach to addiction treatment, first managing the dangers of overdose and disease then trying to help addicts address the issues underlying their disease. I think wider availability of the combination buprenorphine/naloxone product is a good step towards that goal of Harm-Reduction.  In fact, I have been known to argue for the combo product to be available in vending machines. While this is an extreme example and there are many reasons it is not a feasible option, I do think it illustrates a valid principle: Buprenorphine saves lives, prevents the spread of disease, and is a remarkably safe medication. Expanded availability is a good thing.

                So why did this mobile Suboxone van raise my hackles?  Surely, this would increase access to the potentially life-saving medication, and should therefore line up perfectly with my philosophy!  In part, of course, it does; however, I have been able to articulate for myself several ways it does not, several reasons for my misgivings.

                First, as Dr. Burson has said many times, it should be no more expensive for a doctor’s appointment addressing addiction than it is for any other appointment. In the affluent area of Lake Norman, were I to pay out-of-pocket for a routine follow-up visit with my primary care MD (without applying insurance), my cost would be $65. According to their website, the Mobile Suboxone practice charges $175 for an office visit, making their per-appointment charge roughly 270 percent what my primary-care MD charges. While there is certainly nothing wrong with making a profit, I have to wonder if the price differential is warranted, or if it is taking advantage of a relatively desperate population.

                Second, since their website does not identify the person (people?) seeing the patients, there is no way to assess the legitimacy of the practice. In my previous example of buprenorphine in a vending machine, there could be no pretense of legitimate medical practice. However, in a Mobile Suboxone unit, a patient might leave believing he or she had received sound medical advice when this was not the case. There is little on their own website that points to more than a veneer of sound medicine; there are many claims, but paltry sourcing (Wikipedia among them) and seemingly no accountability. As far as I can find, they make reference to a Physician Assistant and “physicians throughout the state,” but attach no names to their practice. In short, even though the practice might expand access to buprenorphine, it seems to be doing so in a way that potentially bills their service as more than it is.

                Third, and following on my point about the medical quasi-legitimacy, the website compares their service to Methadone clinics in a way that I do not believe is fair or even reasonable. They claim that Methadone clinics are too expensive, that they disrupt life too much. While it is certainly true that daily dosing in a clinic can be a burden, particularly if a patient lives far away, a clinic offers a vital component seemingly lacking in the model of the Mobile Suboxone practice: accountability. While they make claims of daily electronic interaction, the daily in-person contact of a Methadone clinic provides a much better picture of a patient’s progress than any electronic communication could. A Methadone clinic mandates and provides counseling for its patients, typically included in the daily fee. The website for the mobile practice offers counseling electronically, the frequency of which is “between you and the counselor,” at a cost of an additional dollar per minute. It seems like an apples-to-oranges comparison: Yes, Methadone might be more expensive than their service, but it comes with much more intense support.

                Finally, that the signs mention “micro-loans” is worrisome. I am not sure how this will work, and I find no mention of the loans on the site. “Micro-loan,” however, evokes images of payday lenders, pawn shops, and other outlets associated with active addiction. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which no one is taking advantage.

I believe the idea of the Mobile Suboxone practice risks losing the ground we have fought so hard to gain in the discussion of the “opioid crisis.” At last, MAT is something being discussed in political circles, and funding is finally opening up to expand access to treatment. Poorly run practices, profiteering, and anything that risks damaging the perceived legitimacy of MAT risks lives. If the practice is not well-run, I fear it might prove an impediment to treatment rather than the expansion it claims to be.

                In conclusion, I may be completely wrong. The Mobile Suboxone practice may be exactly what we need to help more patients get access to life-saving treatment. I sincerely hope my misgivings prove unfounded and that the people behind the roadside signs are creating a new way to combat the disease of addiction. At this point, however, I believe the onus of proof lies on them to show the rest of us how their treatment will work, and that they are not taking advantage of a population that so desperately needs the help offered by well-administered MAT.

 

 

Opioid Addiction from Different Perspectives

Perspective is Essential

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was asked to speak as a member of a panel about opioid use disorder, at the annual addiction conference at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) this month, called the McLeod Institute. This conference was named after Dr. Jonnie McLeod, a great leader in the field who passed away several years ago.

I’ve spoken at this conference several times before, and it’s always a treat. It lifts my spirits to see new recruits entering the field of substance use disorder treatments, all fresh-faced and enthusiastic.

One whole day of the conference was devoted to the problem of opioid use disorders, and I’m sorry I couldn’t attend the morning’s events. After lunch, the five of us on the panel took our seats.

At one end was the operator of an abstinence based, 12-step oriented non-profit outpatient treatment program, one of the best in Charlotte. To his left was a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer whose focus was on interdiction of heroin flooding the streets of Charlotte. Then there was me, and to my left was Donna Hill, program director for Project Lazarus in Wilkes County. At the extreme left was Jennifer, a social worker from New Jersey with many years of experience in the substance use disorder counseling field.

We all introduced ourselves and said a little about how we approached the treatment of opioid use disorders. When it was my turn, I did my usual spiel about how treatment of opioid use disorder with medications including methadone and buprenorphine and naltrexone are the most evidence-based treatments available, yet still have the most stigma against them. I told them our country overused treatments that don’t work, sometimes over and over. I told the audience I worked for an opioid treatment program and had my own office-based practice where I prescribe buprenorphine.

The whole point of the panel was to allow the audience to hear the different viewpoints on our nation’s problem with opioid use disorders, and the panelists didn’t disappoint.

Of course the director of the 12-step oriented, abstinence-based outpatient program advocated for that form of treatment. He made some neutral-to-negative comments about MAT, but he wasn’t as vehement as I expected.

The police officer, not being involved in treatment, mainly gave facts about how awful the heroin problem is in Charlotte. He said it was one of the two hubs, along with Columbus, OH, that drug cartels were using as a base for sales to all the other towns in the Eastern U.S. He explained how the purity had risen and how fentanyl and carfentanil were now being added to heroin or being sold as heroin, because they were cheaper to make and many times more potent. He repeated the account of a police officer who had to be treated for a severe overdose that happened just from brushing heroin off his sweater. (I did read about that on the internet and had some questions regarding the story but wasn’t about to quibble with a man with a gun.)

Donna from Project Lazarus probably could have justified talking the longest, since Project Lazarus is active in so many aspects of treatment, prevention, education, and community outreach, among other things. She gave a nice summary of all the things Project Lazarus does, and encouraged people to call them if they wished to set up a similar organization in another place.

Jennifer the social worker said some good things about how all of us treating opioid use disorder need to work together and communicate, but then, in my opinion, she blew it when she said she disapproved of how treatment programs take advantage of people with opioid use disorders by charging them money to be in treatment. At first I didn’t know exactly who she was targeting but when she said clinics discouraged patients from getting off methadone and buprenorphine only because it was bad for their business, I felt my ire rising.

You know I had something to say about that.

I got a little heated, and said I didn’t think it was fair to imply opioid treatment programs were unethical because they charge patients money to be in treatment. I said other medical specialties charge money for their services, and that this was the way this country approached healthcare. I went on to say that opioid treatment programs don’t keep patients on methadone because it’s a business model; it’s because patients who leave methadone treatment at an OTP have an eight-fold increase in the risk of dying, and a high risk of relapse with all the misery that can come with it: poorer mental and physical health, fractured relationships, damaged self-esteem, lowered personal productivity.

After all, I said, is there any other medication for any other disease that reduces the risk of death by eight times, that has the stigma against it that methadone does?

OK…it’s possible I’m more lucid as I’m writing this than I was in the moment, but I blurted out something to this effect.

Other than that incident, I was relatively well-behaved.

I liked all my fellow panel members, even though we didn’t agree about everything. We all agreed on the most important thing – we all want to keep people from dying from opioid use disorder, and we all want them to find a good quality of life in their recovery.

I stayed to listen to the second panel, composed of people in recovery from opioid use disorder. There were six people on that panel, and of the six, five were either neutral or critical of methadone or buprenorphine. These five people all said that 12-step recovery in Narcotics Anonymous allowed them to quit using drugs and live a successful recovery.

The last patient was different. She gave a brief history of her recovery, and said that though she found 12-step recovery helpful, she needed methadone to return her to a place where she could function normally. She described being off opioids for some months, but being plagued with post- acute withdrawal that ultimately lead to a relapse. Now, she considers methadone a necessary medication for her, and said if she had to be on it for the rest of her life in order to feel normal, she could accept that.

I was so impressed with this lady’s courage. It had to be hard to follow five peoples’ stories that all centered on abstinence-based recovery with her story of being in a form of treatment with so much stigma against it. I was very pleased by what she was saying, and felt like she was speaking for all the people who have benefitted from medication-assisted treatment.

I was disappointed there wasn’t more diversity on this panel. I don’t doubt the other five peoples’ recovery stories, but they were very similar. One of them spoke very negatively about methadone, but later revealed she misused her methadone to an extreme degree and came off a relatively high dose “cold turkey,” which of course is not recommended. Another six people in recovery from opioid use disorder may have the opposite experience with 12-step recovery and medication-assisted treatment

I was socializing with some of the panel members before leaving, and to my surprise, the operator of the non-profit abstinence-based outpatient program told me he was sorry if it sounded like he was trying to bash methadone treatment. I was surprised and pleased, and thanked him.

I’m glad I was there, and I’m glad to see fresh recruits joining the effort to help people with opioid use disorder in their recovery.

Price is “Not a Fan” of MAT

Guest Blogger for this week: Yoshi the Cat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those of us working with patients with opioid use disorder felt apprehensive about what the new head of Health and Human Services (HHS), Dr. Tom Price, would say about medication-assisted treatment. Our wait ended last week, and according to news services, he’s “not a fan” of MAT.

Dr. Price, during a visit to West Virginia last week, said “If we’re just substituting one opioid for another, we’re not moving the dial much,” Price said of MAT, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Folks need to be cured so they can be productive members of society and realize their dreams.” [1]

He went on further to voice his support for faith-based addiction treatments.

As my regular readers know, medication-assisted treatments with buprenorphine or methadone are the most evidence-based treatment for opioid use disorder.

Damn. Just when we were enjoying the push for treatments proven by science to be effective, we get a new head of HHS who either doesn’t know what science shows us, or worse, doesn’t care. Either way, it’s particularly disheartening, since he’s a physician.

If he’s not a fan of MAT, it is doubtful that President Trump will be a fan.

I searched the internet, trying to find information on his record concerning other health-related issues.

Price, while serving as a Congressman from Georgia, voted against the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. He has voted against Planned Parenthood funding, saying providing taxpayer money birth control pills violated religious freedoms. I scoured the internet for his views on Viagra, but couldn’t find anything. I would assume, given his views on birth control, that he’s also opposed to taxpayer funding of Viagra and similar drugs.

Commentators wonder if Price will support re-allocation of funds from MAT to the faith-based treatments he favors.

Then several days ago, our former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy posted comments on Twitter, encouraging people to look to science for answers. He tweeted, “Science, not opinion, should guide our recommendations and policies.” And also, “Decades of research have shown that the benefits of medication assisted treatment greatly outweigh the risks associated with diversion.”

I heard Dr. Murthy speak at this year’s American Society of Addiction Medicine conference. The man is smart, and I hope Dr. Price is listening. He could learn much from this younger physician.

Governor Chris Christie was tasked with leading a panel on opioid addiction by the White House, and his final report will be due October 1st of this year.

  1. http://www.businessinsider.com/hhs-secretary-tom-price-medication-assisted-treatment-suboxone-news-opioid-crisis-2017-5

Shady Signs and the Corporate Practice of Medicine

Roadside Suboxone Advertisement

 

The roadsides of rural North Carolina have become littered with these signs advertising access to Suboxone prescriptions.

When I first saw one of these signs, I was appalled. These signs, more commonly used to advertise homes for sale or dating services, exude tackiness, when used to advertise for medical care. They are called “bandit” signs, for their often unauthorized use. As far as I can tell, these particular signs don’t violate any laws, when placed in the public road right-of-way, but they do seem dodgy. Their 1-800 number and the mention of “microloans” smacks of unprofessionalism to a degree rarely seen in medicine, even in these days. It reminds me of the more outrageous signage of the South Florida pain clinic scourge five or ten years ago.

 

South Florida pain management sign

One shady buprenorphine prescriber casts shade on all other prescribers. These signs make me feel embarrassed to be a doctor who prescribes buprenorphine, because the general public will lump all of us together.

I also felt embarrassed for my patients who take this medication for opioid use disorders. In fact, not long after I saw that first sign, one of my long-term patients, in relapse-free recovery for more than eight years, told me she felt mortified when she and her husband saw a similar sign while driving. She has had a spectacularly successful recovery, yet when her husband saw the roadside sign, he started criticizing her again for “still” being on that medication.

Out of curiosity, I went to the website advertised on the sign.

It’s scary.

They advertise a “mobile medical unit” that will “utilize church parking lots as much as possible,” for privacy reasons. The website says the clinic is staffed by a physician assistant and no medications are dispensed on site. Prescriptions for twenty-eight days will be called in and patients seen by telemedicine. (I assume this meant patients could get counseling via telemedicine.) Twenty-eight cities are highlighted on a NC map on the website, so presumably these are the target areas. The price listed for this monthly visit from a mobile medical unit was about twice what I charge my buprenorphine patients for a routine office visit, so it’s not cheap.

I suspect this business is not going to be owned or operated by a physician, though I could be wrong about that. From the way the content on the website is written, I can almost guarantee no one with medical training had a role in its composition.

This may be its downfall, since NC’s corporate practice of medicine act states that non-physicians aren’t allowed to own medical practices or employ physicians. This means that physicians employed by non-physicians are subject to sanction from the NC medical board.

Let us take a moment to go down this interesting rabbit hole known as the Corporate Practice of Medicine Act, or CPOM.

This antiquated law was a bit of legislation passed many decades ago, when lawmakers had the quaint and rather touching idea that physicians should be the only people to own and operate medical services, since they are the only people trained to know what’s best for the patient.

How can this law still exist, you ask, since about half of doctors’ offices are owned by hospital corporations? Because the medical board doesn’t enforce CPOM law for practices owned by non-profit entities, or for practices owned by hospitals. The medical board’s reasoning is that these hospital corporations, many of them for-profit, are likely to have the patient’s best interests at heart and therefore not be likely to make decisions based on profits alone, unlike other for-profit, non-doctor-owned entities. To me, that seems a bit arbitrary, but I’m not privy to their discussions on the matter.

Ten years or so ago, I quit working for a non-profit opioid treatment program to work for a for-profit OTP. Worried about the CPOM law, I called one of the NC medical board’s lawyers, to ask for information about the legalities of doing this. The board lawyer told me that if anyone reported a doctor for working for a for-profit, non-hospital agency, the medical board would “take action.” I tried to ask about specifics, and told him most of the opioid treatment programs in our state and in most states aren’t physician-owned. I asked if all of those programs were in violation. He kept saying that if they were reported, action would be taken.

He recommended I hire a lawyer who could give me specific legal advice, saying that since he worked for the medical board, he couldn’t give specific advice to the people whose licensure is controlled by that board. He gave me the name of a lawyer in private practice who used to work for the medical board and would be knowledgeable about these laws.

I called this lawyer and explained my situation and asked him how much it would cost to have him figure this out for me. To his credit, this lawyer gave me what felt like good information. He said I shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to figure this out.

He said that since opioid treatment programs are ordered by law to have a physician as medical director, this puts them in direct opposition to the corporate practice of medicine act, and that this was an example of two laws contradicting each other. He said something to the effect that a medical facility that’s so closely regulated by the state can’t be outlawed by the state. This made sense. He said this needed to be figured out at a much higher level than me. He said it was an issue that needed to be worked out between the NC medical board and the state opioid treatment authority.

I liked that answer, since I wasn’t eager to shell out big bucks to hire an attorney. I contacted people at the state opioid treatment authority, and also the board lawyer to tell them what this attorney had said. Then I quit worrying about CPOM since, since this issue was too big for me to take on.

I doubt the issue has been resolved, because I still hear rumblings about how some opioid treatment programs are in violation of the CPOM. All I can say is that this is NOT a new topic, but it is a complicated one.

OK….. let’s pop our head back out of the rabbit hole, and talk about possible positives of having road signs advertising buprenorphine prescriptions.

Maybe the signage I find appalling is a means to harm reduction. We have mobile syringe exchange units, so why not mobile buprenorphine units? Far too many patients are dying of opioid overdose, so maybe roadside advertising is a novel way to reach people at risk for dying from this disease of opioid use disorder. Maybe we need to accept a little tacky advertising in the name of saving lives.

I don’t know – I know I don’t have all the answers. But I question the harm reduction motives of this particular business, based on how much they are charging, and their offer of “microloans.”

I hope somewhere in this business model there’s a conscientious physician tasked with overseeing quality of care. I hope that physician is truly involved, and not just providing a signature on a form every three months.

 

 

Physicians’ Writing Contest

Why cats are not doctors

 

The following post is a bit of writing I did for a doctors’ magazine writing contest. The topic was about finding work-life balance. I didn’t win, but I did get honorable mention. The magazine still offered to publish my piece, but I decided to put it on my own blog instead:

Opportunities for Work-Life Balance

Every Sunday evening, a blanket of gloom shrouded me as I contemplated my upcoming work week. I felt trapped by my work contract, my financial obligations, and my family’s expectations. I couldn’t envision how I could change my life.

In reality, I was the only person who could make changes.

My inability to enjoy work baffled me. I’d finally achieved what I worked for through college, medical school, and residency. I was a board-certified physician of Internal Medicine, well-trained, and prepared to care for patients in a rural practice setting.

This was in the early 1990’s, and in my area, hospitalists didn’t exist. I saw patients in the office by day, at the hospital by night, and squeezed in a dozen or so nursing home patients during free time. I worked around seventy hours per week as I raced down the road to burnout.

During those years, I was a thirsty person trying to drink from a fire hose. It was good stuff, but too much for me.

Then I developed a medical issue, which in retrospect could have been avoided or mitigated by a less stressful work situation. I took a few years off work to regain my health. What at first felt like a personal health disaster eventually became my opportunity to re-organize my life into a full and happy existence, with time to enjoy everything I love. This included taking care of sick patients.

During my two-year hiatus, I missed being a physician. Though I now had an identity outside of medicine, I missed patient interactions and the intellectual challenges. I wanted to return to work, but in new circumstances.

Initially, I thought the solution was to work part-time. That helped, but though I was well-rested, I was dissatisfied with primary care practice. That’s not where my heart was.

I networked with other physician friends, scoured the internet for different practice settings, and became involved with a physician support group near me. I kept an open mind and considered areas outside of mainstream medicine: occupational medicine, working for insurance companies and drug companies, and doing locum tenens work. I considered new areas like forensic medicine, and considered going back to complete a different residency. I made thoughtful decisions based on my research.

Eventually I found my niche in Addiction Medicine, after I agreed to work for a physician friend who was the medical director of an addiction medicine facility.

I thought I would enjoy doing admission histories and physicals on patients entering residential care, but gradually I was drawn to the treatment of opioid use disorder with medications such as naltrexone, buprenorphine, and methadone. I knew next to nothing about this area of medicine, and was amazed to learn the results of sixty years of research that support this treatment.

I got additional training and eventually became certified in Addiction Medicine, now a recognized medical specialty by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Now, I look forward to my work days. I constantly face new challenges, I get paid reasonably well, and I feel like I’m helping not only my patients, but also their families and the community. I feel like I do more good in one day than I did in a month at my Internal Medicine practice, where I treated the sequellae of addiction, but never the cause.

I love the company I work for, and they respect my judgment and support my medical decisions. I work as much as I want for this company, and have time for my own small office-based buprenorphine practice.

I feel blessed to have found my niche, but I also had to do some foot work to get to this point. Here are my suggestions for physicians who want to make changes in their work environments:

  1. Decide what parts of your work makes you happy, and what parts are not so enjoyable. Use your imagination and try to picture what your perfect job would look like. You may not recognize your perfect work opportunity unless you have an idea of what it looks like.
  2.  Keep an open mind and investigate niches of medicine you haven’t considered. Consider working for a locum tenens company as a way to get paid while you investigate different aspects of medicine.
  3. Adjust your financial priorities. If you want to work fewer hours, you may need to jettison some life luxuries. You can make trade -offs. If you want a vacation home on the beach and a big boat, you may need to work more hours than a physician who is content with a cabin in the woods.
  4. Don’t get discouraged by false starts. More than one practice setting failed to work out for me in the long term. I considered that all part of the learning process.
  5. Remember the lessons you learn and try not to repeat mistakes.Several years after I found an enjoyable work situation, leadership changed. I was told that I needed to see more patients, and that my usual pace of six patients per hour was too slow.I recognized this practice was no longer a good fit for me. By this time, I knew my limits, and knew I wouldn’t be happy trying to meet new expectations. I told my physician employer that I planned to move on, and that he should start looking for my replacement. I told him that I didn’t have the temperament for what he needed in a physician, and wished him well. We parted on amicable terms, and I found a place that fit me much better only a few months later.
  6.  Expect to feel some fear. Life changes are risky, but we are talking about reasonable, calculated risks. Decide how much risk you can tolerate, and proceed accordingly. For example, if financial insecurity would ruin your peace of mind, don’t quit your present job until you find a new one.
  7. Don’t allow your identity to be completely defined as a physician. As good as it can feel to be a physician, remember it’s only a portion of who we are. It’s also essential to cultivate our identities as parents, husbands, wives, and the dozens of other things important to us. That way, we aren’t as dependent on work for our sense of well-being. Particularly in this uncertain age of medicine, we must be grounded in other areas of our lives.

Physicians have more control over our lifestyles than we believe. We may feel stuck, trapped in situations we don’t like, but in truth, mos of us have the financial and emotional resources to change our lives into something better. We have survived rigorous training, and have skills to continue to change.

Trying something new is uncomfortable and scary, and sometimes doesn’t work out. But if you feel like I felt – that cold blanket of dismay over your shoulders every Sunday evening –doing nothing, staying stuck – that’s the much bigger risk.

Risk Factors for Long-term Opioid Use


The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention published an important article in their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on March 17, 2017, titled, “Characteristics of Initial Prescription Episodes and Likelihood of Long-Term Opioid Use – U.S., 2006-2015.”

You can read the article here: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6610a1.htm

To summarize for my readers, this article describes a study from a very large pool of patients. This study, felt to represent the U.S. population with commercial health insurance, was done on patients with records in IMS Lfelink+database. With nearly 1.3 million subjects, this was a large study, giving it power to detect even small differences.

The study included patients over age 18 who received at least one opioid prescription during the time frame of June 1, 2006 through September 1, 2015. To be included, the patient had to have been free of opioid prescriptions for at least six months prior to receiving an initial opioid prescription. This patient pool was followed over time, to see what risk factors were associated with continued opioid prescriptions. The patient left the study if they de-enrolled from their insurance, or when the patient went for more than 180 days without any opioid prescriptions, or when the study ended.

Patients with cancer were excluded, as were patients with a substance abuse disorder, and patients who were prescribed buprenorphine for the treatment of substance use disorder, since those patients could be expected to have opioid prescriptions lasting longer than patients without those diagnoses.

The duration and dose of the first prescriptions were examined to see which patient or treatment factors were associated with longer opioid use and ongoing opioid prescriptions.

Out of all of the 1.3 million patients, 2.6% continued on opioids for more than one year. These patients were more likely to be female, have a pain diagnosis prior to the first opioid prescription, be older, and have public insurance such as Medicaid or Medicare. They also tended to be started on higher doses of opioids compared to the patients who used opioids for less than one year.

Of all of the patients who were prescribed opioids, 70% were prescribed opioids for seven or fewer days. Only around 7% were prescribed opioids for more than a month. The rest of the patients were prescribed opioids for one to four weeks.

Of the people initially prescribed seven or fewer days of opioids, only around 6% were still on opioids a year later. But 13% of the patients with an initial opioid prescription for eight or more days were still on opioids a year later. Actually, at around the fifth day, the study showed the biggest spike in likelihood of chronic opioid use. For patients with an initial opioid use episode of more than a month, around 30% were still prescribed opioids a year later.

The amount of opioid prescribed influenced risk of continued opioid use. Authors of the study found that a cumulative dose of more than 700 morphine-milligram equivalents were several times more likely to become chronic opioid prescription users than those patients prescribed less than this amount.

The study looked at regional differences too. Of the patients who continued prescription opioid use for more than three years, 38% lived in the South. Only 19% lived in the East, and Midwestern patient accounted for 31% of users of opioids for more three years. Western patients accounted for around 9% of these patients, and the rest couldn’t be classified as to area of the country for some reason.

I doubt this regional variation is from differences in medical issues of the patients. I suspect these differences are due to physician prescribing practices. I could be wrong. The study authors didn’t elaborate on this data. Maybe doctors in the South are getting it right, and doctors in other areas are undertreating pain. However, many southern states have high opioid use disorder rates, and high opioid overdose death rates. And relative to the entire world, the U.S. takes more than its share of opioid medications, as shown in the graph at the beginning of this blog.

Of course, this study doesn’t show cause and effect, just an association. Longer initial opioid prescriptions are associated with continuation of opioid prescriptions for more than a year; however, perhaps the conditions being treated in that group of patients were more severe.

This study looked to see if there was an association between which opioid was prescribed and the risk of long-term opioid use. Patients given prescriptions of long-acting opioids were more likely to have long-term use. That’s no unexpected, but the second most likely medication to be associated with long term use was tramadol.

Tramadol is still mistaken thought by many physicians to be a benign pain medication, unlikely to cause physical dependence or substance use disorder. But in this study, more than 64% of patients who were started on tramadol were still taking some sort of opioid one year later.

As an aside, I’ve seen a fair number of patients present for treatment of their opioid use disorder who used tramadol, usually with other opioids. And some of the worst withdrawals I’ve seen have been with tramadol, with high fevers along with other more typical opioid withdrawal symptoms.

This study’s authors recommended limiting the initial opioid prescription to less than seven days when possible, to reduce the risk of continued opioid prescription and use. Since their data found that a second opioid prescription roughly doubled the patient’s risk of being on opioids for more than a year, the authors also recommended serious consideration of the second prescription.

This study makes intuitive sense. It showed that the longer the number of days of the initial prescription, the greater than risk of the patient still being on opioids one year later.

But what surprised me was the degree of increased risk, even with only a second prescription, and even with only more than seven days prescribed.

Readers may ask, what’s the big deal about being on opioids for more than one year? That doesn’t necessarily mean the patient has opioid use disorder. That is correct, and this study isn’t saying these patients who became chronic users of opioid pain medication developed opioid use disorder.

However, as the authors say in their summary, previous research does show an increased risk for harm in patients on long-term opioid therapy.

In view of our current opioid overdose death problem, it would seem prudent to limit risk to patients. We can use this information, and be cautious about prescribing more than seven days of opioids. We (physicians) should carefully consider whether to give second opioid prescriptions, and be more cautious about prescribing tramadol and long-acting opioids.

Naloxone in Action


At the recent American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) conference, I read a poster describing a study entitled “Lives Saved with Take-home Naloxone for Patients in Medication Assisted Treatment.” The article, by Katzman et al., from the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, described the outcomes from providing naloxone overdose reversal kits to patients enrolling in medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorders

The study subjects were admitted to medication-assisted treatment over three months in 2016. The poster didn’t say whether they started buprenorphine, naltrexone, or methadone, but I’m guessing the patients were admitted to methadone maintenance.

In the end, 244 subjects enrolled and had education about opioid overdose and how to use a naloxone auto injector kit.

Twenty-nine subjects were lost to follow up, leaving 215 subjects available for inclusion in the study. Of these 215 subjects, 184 didn’t witness or experience overdose.

That means 31 subjects either experienced or witnessed at least one opioid overdose episode.

The scientists conducting the study interviewed these 31 subjects, and discovered that 39 opioid overdoses had been reversed and all of those lives were saved. Thirty-eight people were saved with the naloxone kits distributed by the opioid treatment program, and one study subject was revived by EMS personnel.

When study authors looked at who was saved by these study subjects, they discovered 11% of people saved were acquaintances of the study subjects, 16% were family members, 58% were friends, 6% were the significant others of study subjects, and 13% were strangers.

The study authors concluded that “a significant number of lives can be saved by using take-home naloxone for patients treated in MAT [medication assisted treatment] programs.” The authors also felt the study showed that naloxone isn’t usually on the patient who entered treatment, but more frequently on friends, relatives, and acquaintances that the MAT patient encounters.

I was intrigued by this study because it mirrors what I’ve heard in the opioid treatment program where I work. We are fortunate to get naloxone kits from Project Lazarus to give to our patients. It’s rare that one of our patients enrolled in treatment needs naloxone for an overdose, but much more frequently, I hear our patients say they used their kit to save another person’s life.

If anyone doubted the abilities of people with opioid use disorders, and felt they couldn’t learn to give naloxone effectively, this study should put that idea to rest. If anyone mistaken thought people with opioid use disorders wouldn’t care enough about other people to put forth an effort to save another person, this study should put that idea to rest, too.

In fact, I’ve seen a real enthusiasm among our patients to make sure they have a kit, in case they get the opportunity to save a life. They are eager to help other people, and I find that to be an admirable attitude that’s nearly universal among the people we treat.

Sometimes I get into discussions with patients about what they think about the naloxone kits, and where they think the kits can do the most good. I’ve heard some good ideas. One patient said every fast food restaurant should have a naloxone kit, since she knew many people with opioid use disorder inject in the bathrooms of these facilities. Actually, I just an online article discussing something similar: http://www.wbur.org/commonhealth/2017/04/03/public-bathrooms-opioids  

This article expresses the problems that injection drug use has become for public restrooms, and makes a case for safe injection centers. This is presently illegal in the U.S.

Even Massachusetts General Hospital armed its security guards with naloxone kits, so they could give this life-saving medication to people they found who had overdosed in the hospital’s public bathrooms.

Another patient suggested giving naloxone kits to people living in trailer parks.

I know that feeds into a kind of stereotype of those who live in trailer parks, but apparently there is some basis for saying such residential areas have high density of people with opioid use disorders. It’s worth looking at.

Several patients said that all people receiving opioid prescriptions for chronic pain should also be prescribed naloxone kits, and I think that’s been recommended by many health organizations too.

Most communities have at least talked about arming law enforcement and first responders with naloxone kits, and hopefully that’s a trend that will continue to spread.

Naloxone isn’t a permanent solution for opioid use disorder, but it can keep the people alive until they can enter opioid use disorder treatment. Because dead addicts don’t recover.