My Favorite Patients Have Opioid Use Disorder

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I’m lazy and bloated from too much tryptophan from turkey, so I’m going to post an article today that’s a re-run. I wrote it for a physicians’ magazine, and I’m pleased to say it was published (around six or so years ago). The original title was “My Favorite Patients are Drug Addicts,” but in keeping with newer language, I updated the title:

When I was a fresh faced, newly unleashed graduate from my Internal Medicine residency twenty-three years ago, I never dreamed my favorite patients would be drug addicts.

In medical school, I learned little about drug and alcohol addiction and its treatment, and in residency, even less. I was well trained in the management of acute alcohol withdrawal, acute GI bleeding from alcoholic gastritis, and antibiotic coverage of endocarditis in an injection heroin user, but I couldn’t tell any of these patients how to find recovery from the actual underlying cause of their problems. I could only treat the sequellae, and I didn’t always do that with much grace.

The addicted person caused their own miseries, I thought, and since these were the Reagan years, they should “just say no” when offered drugs. My attitudes mirrored those of the attending physicians in my residency program. When an addict was admitted twice for endocarditis, needing an artificial valve the first admission, and its replacement on the second admission for re-infection, I was just as irritated as the attending and the rest of the house staff. I remember we discussed whether we could ethically refuse him treatment if he came in a third time! We were so self-righteous, though we had offered him little in the way of treatment for his disease of addiction. We might have had a social worker ask him if he wanted to go away for inpatient treatment, he said no, and that’s where our efforts ended.

I knew nothing about medication-assisted therapies for opioid addiction. Now I know better.

I was working part time in primary care when a colleague, the medical director at a local drug addiction treatment center, asked me if I could work for him at this center for a few days while he was out of town. He was a good friend so I agreed. I thought it would be easy money, and fun, doing admission histories and physicals on addicts entering the inpatient residential program, and I was right…but I also saw patients entering the clinic’s methadone program.

This appalled me. It seemed seedy, shady, and maybe a “fringe” area of medicine. It just seemed like a bad idea to give opioid addicts methadone. However, I had made a commitment to my friend, so I told myself I would work those few days, tell my friend politely when he returned that I didn’t “believe” in methadone (as if it were a unicorn or some other mythical beast) and could not work there again.

But when I talked to these patients they surprised and intrigued me. Some patients were intravenous heroin addicts, but most were addicted to pain pills, like OxyContin, various forms of hydrocodone, and morphine. Most of them had jobs and families, and expressed an overwhelming desire to be free from their addiction. I was most intrigued by how the patients talked about methadone treatment. They said such things as “It gave me my life back” and “Now I don’t think about using drugs all the time” and “Methadone saved my marriage and my life”.

Huh? With methadone, weren’t they still using drugs?

My curiosity piqued, I started reading everything I could find about methadone – and to my surprise discovered that the treatment of opioid addiction with methadone is one of the most evidence-based treatments used in medicine today, with forty years worth of solid data proving its efficacy. So why had I never heard of it? I could have referred many intravenous heroin addicts that I saw during my residency, which happened to be during the height of the spread of HIV, for effective treatment of their addiction. Because of methadone’s unique pharmacology, it blocks physical opioid withdrawal symptoms for greater than 24 hours in most patients, and also blocks the euphoria of illicit opioids. At the proper dose, patients should not be sedated or in withdrawal, and are able to function normally, working and driving without difficulty. Therefore, methadone maintenance is not “like giving whiskey to the alcoholic” as some ill informed people – like me – have accused.

For the next eight years I happily worked part time with my friend at this drug treatment center, and saw most methadone patients improve dramatically. Certainly methadone did not work for everyone, but it was a good treatment for many addicts. I did see some tough characters, but I was struck by how normal most of the patients seemed; most were not scary thugs as I had imagined, but housewives and construction workers.

Then I began hearing about a second medication to treat opioid addiction, called buprenorphine, better known by its brand name, Suboxone. The principle of this drug is the same as for methadone: it is a long-acting opioid, can be dosed once per day, and at the proper dose removes the physical withdrawal symptoms, and does not impair patients or give them a high. As an added bonus, it can be prescribed through a doctor’s office. In 2000, the Drug Addiction Treatment Act allowed doctors, for the first time in about 80 years, to prescribe specifically approved schedule III, IV, or V controlled opioid for the purpose of treating people with opioid addiction. Shortly after this, the FDA approved buprenorphine for the treatment of opioid addiction, and the drug became available in 2003. In order to prescribe buprenorphine, a doctor must take an eight hour training course, petition the DEA for a special “X” number, and give notice to CSAT, the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, of her intent to prescribe. Doctors prescribing buprenorphine also must have the ability to refer patients for the counseling that is so necessary for recovery from addiction.

Buprenorphine, a partial opioid agonist, is a milder opioid and there’s a ceiling on its opioid effects, making it a safer and better choice for many patients than methadone. It is particularly good for addicts with relatively short periods of addiction, and fairly stable lives. Since it is a milder opioid, it is relatively easier to taper, if appropriate.

I started prescribing buprenorphine from a private office and loved it from the first. Initially, Suboxone was expensive, but now generic forms have been approved, and prices have come down a little. Opioid treatment programs, formerly known as “methadone clinics” have started offering buprenorphine in addition to methadone.

The opioid addicts I met both in the opioid treatment program and in my private office have not been what I expected. The vast majority are ordinary, likeable people with jobs and families. They are your hairdresser, your grocery clerk, the guy that works on your furnace. They sit beside you at the movies and behind you at church. Because they have built a tolerance to the sedating effects of opioids, they do not look impaired or high; they are able to function normally in society…as long as they have a supply of opioids.

If they are in withdrawal, without a source for opioids, they will be sick. Some people compare opioid withdrawal to having the flu, but it is not. It is like having the flu…and then being hit by a truck. Most addicts in opioid withdrawal are unable to work because of the severe muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Many of these patients are blue collar workers with physically demanding jobs who initially used pain pills to mask their physical pain so that they can work harder, better, faster…never guessing that what seemed to be helping was actually causing them more harm than they could imagine.

Some patients seen in the office setting were professionals. Most professionals can afford the more expensive inpatient thirty- to ninety- day rehabs, a luxury for many of the working middle class. But I saw some lawyers, nurses, even policemen with opioid addiction who refused to consider inpatient treatment even if they could afford it. These professionals were concerned about their livelihood if it became public that they had a problem with addiction, or because they were unwilling to take time off work. They were willing to come to a doctor’s office where no one would know why they were being seen, and they did very well on buprenorphine.

I am thrilled when seeing a patient respond positively to treatment with buprenorphine. Many return on the second visit looking like younger and happier versions of themselves. On the second visit, a common phrase is “It’s a miracle!” Many patients say they just feel normal, even though they had forgotten what normal felt like. When an addict begins to recover, the changes are usually dramatic; they begin to smile, to restore relationships, to rejoin their families and their communities. When an addict recovers, the ripple effect extends throughout the community.

We know now that addiction is indeed a chronic disease much like asthma and diabetes. Just like these diseases, there are behavior components that can make the disease worse, and there are genetic and personal factors that put some people at higher risk. Sadly, many addicts are still treated with distain and disgust by their doctors, an attitude we would not tolerate towards any other disease. This causes patients to hide addiction from their doctors, and the disease worsens.

Many people, even doctors, still object to the use of medication assisted therapies for addicts, saying “it’s trading one drug for another,”  when in reality it is trading active addiction for medication, when prescribed responsibly and appropriately. Drug-free recovery is ideal, but with opioid addiction, it does patients a disservice to dismiss the mountains of evidence proving the effectiveness of medication-assisted therapies with buprenorphine and methadone.

Detoxification alone (usually five to seven days) does not work, and shows relapse rates of up to 96%. If detoxification alone worked, the policy of imprisonment for addicts promulgated in the 1950’s would have solved the opioid addiction problem. It didn’t.

For most patients, their big question is: “How soon can I get off of this drug?” Most express a desire to be completely drug free at some point, but I think it’s important to get each patient involved in a recovery program before tapering their medication. This can be an intensive outpatient program at a treatment center, an individual therapist, or through 12-step recovery.

Some patients, particularly those with both opioid addiction and chronic pain, prefer to remain on buprenorphine or methadone indefinitely as the safest treatment for both problems, and these patients also seem to do very well.

As for me, I plan to continue treating addicts of all types. These patients have been among the most grateful that I have encountered in primary care, and show the most improvement. When I treat addicts and see peace return to a face that had been filled with shame, I get a unique feeling of accomplishment. These are events I am honored to witness.

 

Journal Errors

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Each morning before getting ready for work, I try to read at least part of a medical journal. Usually I read tediously boring things about diabetes, hypertension, and the like. However, recently, with the overall increased focus on opioid use disorder, I’ve noted more articles about this issue.

Sometimes, the authors don’t get it exactly right. I suppose to some doctors, treatment of opioid use disorders is as boring and confusing as I find diabetes treatment to be. But then, I don’t write about diabetes. I do think if you are writing for a medical journal, you ought to take care to be accurate.

Last week I read Internal Medicine News. This is not a pre-eminent journal. It does not have the reputation of the New England Journal of Medicine, or the Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, it is what we commonly call a “throw-away” journal. It’s really more of a newspaper, a summary of other medical journals, that a publisher of original studies. For that reason, it’s a more informal publication.

While I understand all of that, I was chagrined when I read a short article titled “Interdisciplinary approach to opioid withdrawal can aid successful long-term recovery.” In this article, the author names three medications that can be used to “wean patients off opioids:” naloxone, buprenorphine, and acamprosate.

Huh? Surely that’s got to be an error. Maybe the editor cut out some text essential to accurate understanding. You know I love to write letters to tell people when they are wrong, so I emailed the following letter to the journal’s editor:

Dear Sirs:

I read some information on page 18 of the November 1, 2016, issue of the Internal Medicine News that I feel needs to be clarified. Likely due to space limitations, Dr. Lorenzo Norris M.D. may have given the wrong impression about medications used to treat patients with opioid use disorder.

Dr. Norris mentions naloxone, buprenorphine, and acamprosate as medications that can be used to “wean a patient from opioids.”

In fact, naloxone is an opioid antagonist, and though it can be life-saving in the face of an opioid overdose, it should not be used to wean patients from opioids. As an antagonist with a high affinity for the mu opioid receptor, it would precipitate immediate and severe opioid withdrawal. Therefore, naloxone is not recommended to wean a patient. However, the related opioid antagonist naltrexone can be used after a patient is through acute opioid withdrawal, to help prevent a relapse to opioid use. It can be used in either daily oral formulation or the depot monthly intramuscular injection.

Acamprosate, while approved for use in patients after undergoing alcohol withdrawal, has no indication for use in patients with opioid use disorder.

The third drug, buprenorphine, can be used to wean a patient off opioids, but multiple studies have shown extremely high relapse rates when it is used in this manner. Buprenorphine gives much better results (lower incidence of opioid-positive urine drug screens, lower risk of use of illicit opioids, reduced risk of death) – when used as a maintenance medication.

Giving Dr. Norris the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure he would have elaborated on buprenorphine for maintenance treatment of opioid use disorder, had space permitted. However, this is such an important concept that I feel it deserves elaboration.

Thank you for your coverage of this critical issue.

Sincerely,

Jana Burson M.D.

Maybe I’m being too picky. Maybe the editor will think I’m being a know-it-all smarty pants. After all, at least this publication is trying to cover opioid use disorder treatment, which is a wonderful thing.

I don’t know. If we give out information, let’s make sure it is correct, given the depth of misunderstanding that already abounds in the field of Addiction Medicine.

I’ll let you know if I get any reply.

Diagnostic Overshadowing

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I was trying to get through a pile of non-Addiction Medicine journals when I came across an article titled “The Ethics of Behavioral Health Information Technology: Frequent Flyer Icons and Implicit Bias,” in the October 18th, 2016, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

 

According to the authors, Michelle Joy M.D. et al, at least one electronic medical record (EMR) system provides a way to display an icon shaped like an airplane, as a way to inform treating physicians that the patient is a “frequent flyer.” This term has long been used to describe patients who repeatedly come to emergency departments or other providers on a regular basis.

This term has been used for decades. I’ve used it myself in the past. It’s a short-hand phrase that usually means, “This patient is a pain in the ass because he/she keeps coming back for inappropriate reasons.” More elegantly and succinctly, the authors of this article say the term frequent flier is short-hand for “problem patient.”

This article points out the ethical harms of stigmatizing patients in this manner, and presents the term “diagnostic overshadowing.” This means a physician’s attitude towards a patient can be skewed by the idea that the patient is seeking care for inappropriate reasons. The article goes on to cite studies showing patients with mental health conditions are less likely to get appropriate medical care compared to patients without mental health issues, likely due to this diagnostic overshadowing.

I see this every week in my patients with opioid use disorder. Even my patients who are in recovery and doing well say they are treated differently when they go to our local hospital emergency departments, or even to their primary care doctors. After they reveal they’re on buprenorphine or methadone to treat opioid use disorder, they detect changes in the attitudes of their care providers.

Often, the patient will say, “I know I’ve tried to score drugs from him before, but this time I didn’t get a chance to say anything before the doctor accused me of being a drug seeker.” The doctor, reading the past records, jumped to the conclusions that this person is only in the emergency department to get pain pills. The doctor shuts down further communication because of his diagnostic overshadowing. The patient doesn’t get a chance to receive appropriate care. Maybe just as bad, that patient is given the message that they don’t deserve respect, due to their diagnosis of opioid use disorder.

If this happens to patients years after they’ve been in recovery, just think about what happens to people in active opioid use disorder. They are pre-judged as drug seekers, and the emergency department doctors sometimes decide, before gathering information, that the addicted person has no valid medical problems. The doctor starts with an assumption that the patient is a bad person, rather than a sick person.

This attitude leads to medical disasters. Patients with current intravenous drug use are more likely, not less likely, to have serious medical problems.

I’ve seen two patients who had serious infectious medical emergencies that were missed by local emergency room doctors. Both patients were seen multiple times at two local hospital emergency departments. Both said they were treated with distain by personnel. One was seen a total of four times before she went, on her own, to the emergency department of a nearby teaching hospital, where she was immediately diagnosed, and taken for emergency surgery.

I believe these two patients encountered doctors who experienced the diagnostic overshadowing described in the JAMA article, because they had opioid use disorders. Their doctors assumed they only wanted pain pill prescriptions and weren’t all that sick.

What do we do about diagnostic overshadowing?

We must educate physicians more completely about addiction and mental health disorders. I’ve written in previous blog posts about the lack of training, at least in the past, for physicians about substance use disorders. Specific training in medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorders wasn’t taught at all. This is slowly changing, and medical schools now teach students about these vital medical problems. This will help younger physicians, who are getting their training now.

What about older doctors, already in practice? I think all of us working in substance use disorder and mental health disorder fields have an obligation to educate our peers. I know I held significant bias against methadone before I knew anything about it. One doctor friend encouraged me to read and learn. When I did, I found piles of information supporting this evidence-based treatment.

Now I try to pass along what I’ve learned. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes not. I’ve talked to doctors in my community, with a wide range of results. Some physicians have become allies, supportive of the patients we share. Others have not been willing to listen or learn about MAT. One doctor told me if I prescribe MAT for one of his patients, he will dismiss that patient from their practice.

The only difference between this doctor and me was in our willingness to learn. Had I not agreed to read some of the tons of studies showing that methadone helps patients with opioid use disorder, I’d still be opposed to methadone, as he continues to be. It’s a reminder to remain teachable.

It’s easy to become frustrated with my colleagues. For example, I can’t remember even one patient being referred to our opioid treatment program by the local hospital’s emergency department physicians. I have not been successful at educating these doctors.

Up until this last month, we didn’t get referrals from our local substance abuse and mental health treatment provider for the county. One patient specifically asked them to refer her to a methadone clinic, and was told, “We don’t do that.” Fortunately, she had friends who told her where to find our treatment center.

Our program manager, nurse manager, and I met with the treatment program’s supervisors, who said they had no idea their facility was trying to prevent patients from accessing opioid treatment programs. They promised to fix the situation.

Thankfully, something changed, and we just got our first few referrals from this program over the last two weeks. I see this as a tremendous success of advocacy, though it took our program manager quite some time to get through to their management.

In a blog earlier this year, I described how the local detox center wants to provide Intensive Outpatient Program for our patients on methadone and buprenorphine. That’s a collaboration I didn’t think would ever happen, yet in a few weeks I hear their program will be ready for our patients.

So things do change, but not quickly. All of us advocating for MAT need to be patient, yet persistent. Maybe then we can eliminate diagnostic overshadowing for our patient populations.

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My Hopeless Patient

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(Details have been changed to protect patient identity)

I have a patient in my office-based practice whom I see only every two months. If you had told me ten years ago, when I first met him, that he would become a stable and productive member of society, I would have scoffed. If you told me he would someday have over three years of freedom from active addiction, I would have rolled my eyes in disbelief.

I think of this person when I’m tempted to write off any patient as hopeless.

He was one of the worst. I first met him when I worked at an opioid treatment program (OTP) over ten years ago. He was often impaired and belligerent. At least once he had to be transferred to another OTP, due to aggressive behavior towards the staff and other patients. He was belligerent with me too, and I dreaded my appointments with him. He had a terrible cocaine addiction, and almost all his drug screens were positive for cocaine and benzodiazepines. On several occasions I referred him to a local inpatient program, but he left against medical advice or was asked to leave.

A few years after I left that OTP, he called my office-based practice to ask if he could switch to buprenorphine. The woman making appointments scheduled him with me.

The next week, looking at my schedule, I remember saying, “Oh HELL no. I’m not seeing this guy. He’s not going to stabilize in an office-base practice.” But he had already paid to hold his appointment slot, so I felt obligated to see him. My plan was to tell him he wasn’t appropriate for an office-based program, and to recommend inpatient treatment, as I had so many times in the past.

At the first visit, he was less belligerent than I recalled, and had been free from cocaine for several months. He appeared to have a little more insight into his behavior and his addiction. I sensed he had a strong desire for change. Skeptically, I agreed to start him on buprenorphine, secretly assuming he would drop out of treatment after a few weeks.

From the start, his use of illicit opioids dropped impressively. From that point of view, he made immediate progress.

However, during his first year in treatment in my office-based practice, he had periodic relapses to cocaine. He’d come into my office, fling himself into a chair, and say, “Don’t bother giving me a drug screen. I messed up. I got high on cocaine and then took benzos to come down.” I was impressed with his honesty and I was impressed by how much his relapses bothered him. I was also impressed when he made – and kept – appointments with a psychologist for addiction counseling. He was dismayed and frustrated, because he said he didn’t really enjoy using drugs anymore, but still couldn’t stop using them. This angered and baffled him.

He’d get so frustrated with his own behavior that he would start crying. The first time it happened, I was uncomfortable and worried. He was the ultimate tough guy, more likely to yell than cry. I worried the tears meant a severe mental illness. As time went on, we both got more comfortable with his tears. I saw he was experiencing the pain of his powerlessness over addiction.

He’d been in and out of 12-step recovery for years, and didn’t feel like the meetings helped him much, but he’d go once in a while. He kept going to counseling, though he was only able to afford sessions once or twice per month. He kept his frequent appointments with me. Above all else, he kept his appointments.

I had moments of grave concern, worried he really wasn’t stable enough for me to be treating him in an office-based setting, and on several occasions mentioned my concerns to him.

In my own mind, I also worried about how someone reviewing his chart would view me as a doctor. If someone from the DEA or Department of Health and Human Services wanted to review his chart, they would think I was careless with this patient, and that I should have referred him back to the methadone clinic. During his relapse years, I worried that I was giving this patient inadequate treatment, yet knowing him as I did, I didn’t think he would ever go back to an OTP or inpatient treatment. I also really believed he was going to make progress in recovery, though I didn’t have much to justify my belief.

I also leaned on him to consider an inpatient program. He was set against both an opioid treatment program and an inpatient program, saying he was sick of being treated like a child, and that he didn’t do very well when people told him what to do.

I saw what he meant.

In opioid treatment programs, sometimes a milieu of “us versus them” can be pervasive. Despite using kind and collaborative counseling approaches, patients often feel they are unfairly told what they can and can’t do.

They are right, of course. Opioid treatment programs have to follow an amazing number of state, federal, and local regulations in order to stay open. These rules rankle patients, who feel like they’re being treated like children by irrational parents.

I do get that. Even at the best OTPs, byzantine rules frustrate patients.

In an office-based setting, there’s more freedom to individualize treatment. By that I don’t mean patients can or should get by with less care. But I have more flexibility, and more opportunities to build rapport with patients in my office than in the OTP.

Addiction treatment literature describes a type of counseling known as motivational interviewing (MI), or motivational enhancement. I’ve read books about this practice, and though I’m a beginner compared to experienced therapists, I do try to use MI methods where I can.

MI encourages treatment providers to listen closely to the patient, clarify what the patient is saying, and ask the patient to participate in solving problems. MI is a collaborative type of counseling, believing patients know more about how to help themselves than more traditional counseling techniques give them credit for knowing. MI also teaches that confrontations with patients aren’t usually helpful.

At the OTP, this patient had a hard time controlling his temper when an authority figure (me) confronted him about drug use and bad behavior. In my office setting, I didn’t confront him but asked him to describe how his relapse happened, and asked him what he thought triggered the overwhelming desire to use the drugs. I asked him what he thought could be helpful for next time, and he had some good answers.

This approach worked well. The time between relapses grew longer, and he appeared to have more and more insight into what caused him to relapse and how he could avoid those situations.

For example, in the past, he got into physical fights at his work place, would get fired, and go use cocaine. At one session, he told me how he’d love to punch his boss in the face. He said it would feel good, but only for a few minutes, and then he would lose another job. He didn’t like his job, but wanted to leave it on his own terms.

Eventually, that’s what he did – he gave a 2 week notice, and left with another job already lined up. Sadly, he couldn’t afford health insurance at his new work. I told him to petitioned Reckitt-Benckiser’s program of free medication for one year for patients in dire financial conditions, and he met their requirements. I also agreed reduced my office fee temporarily, until he got back on his feet.

Then his mother was diagnosed with end-stage cancer. He worked at night so he could help take care of her during the day. He was less angry but more depressed, and he finally agreed to start taking an antidepressant medication. During her prolonged illness, he still struggled with occasional illicit drug use, but he was able to work full time and also help care for his mother. He was very distraught when she died, but happy he’d been able to spend time taking care of her at the end of her life. Ironically, the rest of his family, who had once written him off as the black sheep, came to depend on him during this difficult time for them all.

Since then, he’s been diagnosed with several chronic medical problems, but he has a good job that he likes, and he has good insurance coverage. This allows him to see his primary care doctor regularly. He helps his father around the house and helps financially when he can.

He gradually transformed into a productive member of society.

I have come to enjoy his visits. He’s actually very funny, with a droll sense of humor. His last positive urine drug screen was more than three years ago, and this was his last illicit drug use.

His life isn’t perfect. He has problems with relatives, and has some unmet goals in his life that he’s working on, but looking at him now, you wouldn’t guess he once had serious and life-threatening issues with addiction.

A couple of times a year, we discuss whether he wants to taper off buprenorphine. So far, he said he doesn’t want to risk it, and prefers staying on buprenorphine. I agree with him; he’s doing so well now, I don’t want to risk making changes that could harm him.

What helped this patient? Was it relief from an overly authoritarian opioid treatment program system? Did he age out of his addiction and youthful antics, as so many people do? Did he benefit from the motivational enhancement counseling I tried to provide? Or was he sick of the addiction, and just needed a little help while he got better on his own? I don’t know, but it’s been a delight to be even a small part of his recovery.

When I’m tempted to write off a patient as hopeless, I think of him.

Congratulations, Spencer Clark!

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This month at the AATOD meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, Spencer Clark won the prestigious Dole-Nyswander award for service to the field. Spencer is the director of North Carolina’s SOTA (State Opioid Treatment Authority).

I’m so pleased he got this award. He’s earned it, for all the hard work he’s done to improve the quality of care given to patients at OTPs in NC.

Being SOTA director can’t be an easy job. He’s had to lead doctors, legislators, OTP owners and managers to a better plan of care for those with opioid addiction.

Spencer has been able to get OTP physicians together, so that we can educate each other about the best standards of care. I don’t know about the other groups, but getting a group of physicians to gather in one place and agree on anything is like trying to herd cats

With the help of the North Carolina Governor’s Institute, Spencer started monthly telephone conferences for all the doctors who work in North Carolina opioid treatment programs. These phone calls, led by a knowledgeable physician moderator, usually start with the presentation of a difficult case, and participants give suggestions for how best to handle the clinical vignette. Then we discuss various timely topics that complicate care to our patients with opioid use disorders.

This sounds like such a simple thing, but it’s had such a beneficial effect for the doctors who participate. This is a very specialized field, and we frequently get difficult cases fraught with medical and ethical issues. Now physicians in North Carolina have access to other doctors with similar specialized knowledge, to discuss difficult and complex cases.

It can be lonely, working as a physician at an opioid treatment program. We don’t usually have a lot of contact with doctors sharing our common vision of how to treat opioid use disorder. More often, OTP doctors are criticized by other community physicians, usually behind our backs, out of ignorance of our work.

SOTA and the Governor’s Institute, along with the North Carolina chapter of ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine) also started sponsoring yearly meetings each spring. These several-day conferences have had excellent speakers from around the nation. I’ve learned so much at these meetings, and look forward to it every year.

Spencer Clark set up an unofficial physician mentoring program as well. I help out in the Western part of the state, and another physician is available in the Eastern part of the state. We are available at all times to answer any questions OTP physicians might have. It’s a state-wide version of the national program Providers Clinical Support System (PCSS), run by the American Association of Addiction Psychiatry, which provides guidance for physicians across the nation who treat opioid use disorders with buprenorphine, methadone, or naltrexone.

Since there can be regional variations in drug use problems, a physician in the same region can sometimes add complementary perspective to what a national expert provides.

Spencer Clark came to his office in 2007. At that time, I was pulling my hair out because I’d just become medical director of a large, multi-site opioid treatment program, and we had too many patient deaths. Even one is too many, and I remember we had three patients die in one weekend, over Easter weekend that year.

I analyzed data from all the decedents, and it was obvious we had to change some things about our treatment program. I told the administrators of this program that we had to start being open all days of the week, and that we could not give take homes to brand-new patients. We had to lower starting doses, and start scrutinizing benzodiazepine-using patients to see if they could be started safely in treatment, or needed inpatient detoxification first, to get off benzodiazepines. I had a few other things to recommend, and to their credit, the administrators began to implement some of my ideas.

But later that year, when Spencer Clark came to SOTA, he sent a letter to the president of the opioid treatment program, wanting to know – in essence – what in God’s name was going on with these overdose deaths??

I remember one administrator lamenting that Spencer had taken over as SOTA director. He said of Spencer’s letter, “This will blow over. This isn’t going to amount to much.” I remember thinking, “OK, you’re wrong. Now we appear to have a SOTA director who gives a damn about what’s going on in the methadone clinics.”

Spencer made my job easier. With that pressure from the SOTA, I believe administrators were more willing to implement needed changes. I still wasn’t able to get them to provide buprenorphine in addition to methadone, but other changes reduced our death rate.

Spencer helped the physicians who work at OTP become allies. We set a standard of care, giving individual doctors more clout with the OTP owners. We can now point to what other physicians are doing to improve patients care and safety. And if an OTP owner is intransigent, refusing to make a needed change, that’s information for the physician. She then had to decide what to do – keep working at that program, or look for a greener pasture.

Spencer’s efforts are always focused on making treatment for patients with opioid use disorder better and safer. He may disagree with individuals and agencies about what that looks like in actual practice, but his driving intent is always about the patients. I’ve heard he’s occasionally ruffled some feathers at the quarterly OTP managers meetings. Therefore, it’s a tribute to his tact that this same group nominated him for the Dole-Nyswander award. He’s able feather-ruffle in a way that’s respectful, and clearly motivated by a desire to improve the health of patients with opioid-use disorder.

Well done, Spencer! You richly deserve this award.

Treatment Implications for Intravenous Buprenorphine Use

Hokey Pokey

 

 

During the admission of new patients for opioid use disorder treatment, I ask about prior use of all drugs. I include the medications we use for treatment. I’ve done this since I started working at opioid treatment programs (OTPs) fifteen years ago.

Over the last few years, more patients say they’ve used illicit buprenorphine in the past. At first, I saw patients who were using it sublingually (under the tongue), as recommended, though still illicitly. Most of them wanted to see if this medication would work for them before they committed to the time and expense of entering a treatment program.

Over the past six months, I’m seeing more and more new patients who say they’re using buprenorphine intravenously. This past month, I’d estimate that a fourth of the patients who use buprenorphine illicitly are injecting it. Only a few said they snort buprenorphine.

This presents a big wrinkle to the treatment process.

I see why people use intravenous buprenorphine. It has low sublingual bioavailability, at around thirty percent. That means injecting two or three milligrams gives the same blood level as eight milligrams sublingually. In the short term, people injecting buprenorphine feel like it saves them money. In the long term, I’m certain it will cost more than they can imagine.

Buprenorphine tablets and films were not designed to be injected. Pills and films have fillers in them, and they aren’t sterile. Heating a mixture prior to injection will kill off some of the bacteria, so that’s a harm reduction practice. Using a filter can remove some of the particulate matter, also reducing the potential for harm. However, heat and filters can’t remove all the risk of injecting.

People on the internet insist the bioavailability of snorted buprenorphine is higher than sublingual use, but I doubt that. Either way, you bypass the liver because it crosses to the bloodstream via the veins of the nose or tongue. Plus, alkaline environments increase absorption and bioavailability for this drug, and the mouth is more alkaline than the nose.

Of course there is another reason people with opioid use disorder inject or snort their medication. Their brains associate the act of injecting or snorting with pleasure and euphoria, and can become addicted to the process and feeling of both means of ingestion.

Due to the ceiling on buprenorphine’s opioid effect, it is… arguably… one of the safest opioids a person could inject. But intravenous use is never safe.

Here’s only a partial list of complications from intravenous drug use:

  1. Overdose resulting in death, brain damage from low oxygen, stroke or heart attack from prolonged low oxygen
  2. Pulmonary edema (lungs fill with fluid)
  3. Skin abscesses and cellulitis
  4. Endocarditis (infection of heart valve that is life-threatening)
  5. Deep vein thrombosis (blood clot)
  6. Septic thrombophlebitis (infected blood clot)
  7. Contracting infections: HIV, Hep C or B
  8. Bacterial infections and abscesses in weird places like the spine, brain, joints, spleen, muscles, or eye
  9. Necrotizing fasciitis – rapid, “flesh- eating” infection, also botulism
  10. Pneumonia
  11. Septic emboli – when infected clots break off and go to the lungs, brain from infected heart valves
  12. Fungal blood/eye infections – (seen frequently when pills mixed with saliva are injected)

I have seen patients with every one of these complications. Most of them were in the distant past, when I was an Internal Medicine resident during the late 1980’s, but not all of them. Over the past six months, I’ve seen two patients with spinal abscesses from injecting drugs, though not necessarily buprenorphine.

The last time I posted about intravenous use of buprenorphine (November 2015), Dr. Wartenberg M.D. (pioneer in the addiction treatment field) wrote about the mitochondrial disease, which has caused liver failure, in European IV buprenorphine drug users. This disorder is specific to buprenorphine

So what are the treatment implications for a new patient who has injected buprenorphine?

First of all, these patients aren’t appropriate for office-based practices, even if the physician plans to prescribe the combination product with buprenorphine/naloxone. Clearly there are some patients who inject combination products and monoproducts. Granted, it’s less common, but it still occurs. There’s usually not enough oversight available at office-based practices to treat more complicated patients. I think they should be referred to opioid treatment programs, where they can be offered treatment with methadone.

What if the patient refuses methadone for some reason, or their risk with methadone is at too high from a medical view? Should patients with a history of injecting buprenorphine ever be treated with buprenorphine?

I think they can be – with great caution and daily dosing, on-site at the opioid treatment program.

At our OTP, we ask all buprenorphine patients to sit in a designated area while their dose dissolves. It usually takes around ten minutes, and they are watched by program personnel. Before they leave, each buprenorphine patient shows one of the staff their mouth, to show the medication is completely dissolved. It does feel a little “police-y” but we had a high incidence of diversion until we started this close observation.

If a patient tries to spit out their medication, they meet with me. I’m rarely willing to continue to prescribe buprenorphine if it appears they are trying to divert their medication. I meet with the patient and we discuss the option of methadone. If they refuse methadone, we try to refer them to another form of treatment.

If a patient with a history of injecting buprenorphine wants treatment with buprenorphine, I tell him I’m willing to give it a try, but that he can’t expect take home doses for a very long time, after months of observed dosing and stability. So far, this approach seems to be working. These patients are getting counseling, and haven’t attempted to divert their medication, so far as we can see. I’ve checked these patients for track marks, which in all cases appear to be healing, with no new marks.

When/if to grant these patients take homes remains a huge question. I don’t want to unduly burden a patient by insisting he must come every day forever, but I also don’t want to give the patient take home doses that could lead to a relapse back to intravenous use.

Something New: Tianeptine

tianeptine

 

 

One of my doctor friends called me to ask if I’d seen any patients addicted to tianeptine. No, I had not. This was a new one for me, so I did some internet research for my readers.

Tianeptine is a medication used to treat depression, though some sources say it can be used for asthma and irritable bowel syndrome. Though structurally similar to tricyclic antidepressants, it exerts its action in a different way, via glutamate receptors. Other antidepressants are thought to work because they increase serotonin and norepinephrine levels, so tianeptine is novel in this sense.

Scientists know depression causes structural and functional changes in the brain, and some articles about tianeptine say this medication can reverse some of the stress-induced changes seen in depressed brains. We don’t fully understand all aspects of neurotransmitters and mood, and this medication shows us that serotonin and norepinephrine are not the only determiners of mood. [1, 2]

It’s an interesting medication, but not available in the U.S., Canada, or the United Kingdom. It is sold in Europe under the brand names Coaxil and Stablon. It appears to be more toxic to the liver than traditional antidepressants. And of course, if you Google tianeptine, you will see websites offering to sell it, with the fine of print of “not for human consumption,” with a wink and a nod, to protect the sellers, I assume. Mostly sites sell it in a powder form.

But what about this medication’s addictive potential? Why would people take it compulsively?

When I want to know how people are using various drugs, I go to several websites, including erowid, bluelight, and drugs-forum (www.erowid.org , www.bluelight.org , drugs-forum.com) On these sites, people record their experiences with various medications used for euphoria, and occasionally for other reasons too.

On these sites, people described a euphoria similar to opioids, though the described dose was usually far in excess of the recommended 12.5mg three times daily. One person took 500mg and described euphoria. Other people mixed it with other drugs, so it’s hard to know what effect the tianeptine had. Other people described a difficult withdrawal from tianeptine.

Kesa et. al., 2007, says tianeptine has some stimulating activity at the mu opioid receptors, thought it has a low affinity for those receptors. Apparently it takes high doses to produce euphoria, moderated through those opioid receptors.

In the Annals of Internal Medicine, 2003, Leterme et al describe five cases of tianeptine abuse. Withdrawal was said to be difficult, due mostly to anxiety.

Bence et al, Pediatrics, 2016, published a case study about a pregnant woman who was taking tianeptine, more than 650mg per day. Unexpectedly, her newborn had a withdrawal syndrome indistinguishable from opioid withdrawal, which was when her doctors discovered her tianeptine use. The baby was treated with morphine, and no mention is made of treatment for the mother until her next pregnancy, when she was admitted to a residential detox unit in her seventh month of pregnancy. Other than low birth weight, her second infant was delivered at full term with no withdrawal. Both children appear to have normal development.

From the collective experiences I read, it seems tianeptine is a weak opioid agonist, but at high doses gives an opioid effect. It sounds like people describe a typical opioid addiction after using these high doses daily for more than a few weeks. They described classic signs and symptoms of opioid withdrawal.

The doctor friend who first called me about this drug worked at an opioid treatment program. The tianeptine-consuming patient he was seeing wanted to be started on buprenorphine or methadone to treat tianeptine withdrawal. I told my friend I didn’t know enough about the drug to feel it was OK to try buprenorphine or methadone.

Since then I’ve done more research, and I suspect buprenorphine or methadone could help treat these patients, but I didn’t see any studies about their use for this addiction.

Particularly with methadone, if we prescribe it to people without a clear indication, they could later get nasty and angry about being started on methadone, a difficult drug to taper off of.

I’d like a need for a study of tianeptine-addicted patients, to see if using classic opioid use disorder treatment medications work for these patients.

Tianeptine could become the latest fad drug. Some drugs fade in and out of popularity, like the latest style of dress or music. I think this one could be a harmful fad, and we have no research about treatment.

  1. Kasper et. al., “Neurobiological and clinical effects of the antidepressant tianeptine,” CNS Drugs, 2008;22(1);15-26.
  2. McEwen et. al., “The neurobiological properties of Tianeptine (Stablon): From hypothesis to glutamatergic modulation,” Molecular Psychiatry 2010 March;15(3): 237-249.