Confusion over Methadone Peak and Trough Levels

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Recently I’ve had patients write to my blog describing how their opioid treatment program doctors are using methadone blood levels to determine the correct dose. What they described to me was worrisome; patients’ doses rarely need to be checked with methadone peak or trough blood levels. Due to tolerance, a methadone blood level may be adequate for one patient, but far too low for other patients.

A patient’s dose of methadone needs to be determined on clinical grounds. This can include the patient’s description of withdrawal symptoms and their timing related to dosing, physical exam just before the patient is due for a dose, and evaluation of the patient three to four hours after dosing. It may also include an evaluation of ongoing illicit opioid use, other medical issues, and other medication or illicit drug use.

Opioid treatment program physicians rarely need to check methadone blood levels. I usually check peak and trough blood levels when I suspect a patient may be a fast metabolizer who may do better with split dosing. In such a case, the patient describes feeling fine for the first part of the day but in awful withdrawal by night time, despite taking a relatively higher dose. Then if the patient’s peak (highest level) is twice the trough (lowest level) I know they may feel better with twice a day dosing. Certain medications can induce the metabolism of methadone, making the patient metabolize methadone more quickly and drop the blood level. Often in this situation, split dosing helps.

I cringe when patients say things like, “my doctor checks a methadone blood level on everyone when they get to 80mg to see if they need to increase the dose or not.” For the vast majority of patients, getting this blood level won’t be helpful. If it’s used to determine the patient’s dose, it could be harmful. Many patients will still feel withdrawal while dosing at 80mg, even though they may have what would be considered a moderate blood level.

Our patients are tolerant to opioids. For this reason, methadone patients who are doing well, feel fine and have normal lives can have so-called “toxic” blood levels of methadone. A level that would kill someone unaccustomed to methadone may be just what my patient needs.

Some doctors think all opioid addicts want to go higher on their methadone dose than they need, and that these addicts would want limitless dose escalations unless the doctor stops this. In some patients, addiction may drive the addict to ask for dose increases even when not needed. Addiction often tells the patient “more is better.”

I’ve seen this problem too, but not as often as one might expect. More often, I’m the one advocating for a higher methadone dose. Don’t get me wrong, I do want to use the lowest effective dose. Some patients, due to fear of methadone and the stigma against it, are afraid to increase their dose. I point out that studies show patients do the best in methadone treatment if they are on a high enough dose to block the withdrawal symptoms and block the euphoria from other opioids. Particularly if the patient is still using illicit opioids, I recommend a dose increase.

Lab tests aren’t an adequate substitute for talking to the patient and examine the patient. As we used to say when I was in medical school, about a billion years ago, “Treat the patient, not the lab result.”

5 Year Blog Anniversary

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I never imagined my blog would be going strong after five years. Initially, I started it to promote I book that a wrote. The book did OK, but the blog has been so much more interesting and rewarding. I hope I’ve helped educate my readers, because they surely have educated me. I have a much better idea what’s going on out there in “addiction land.” My patients educate me about local trends, but blog commenters give a more universal view.

Thanks for reading and let’s continue our education of each other.

North Carolina Prepares to Step Off a Cliff…

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The first time I saw a copy of North Carolina bill S297, it was from a prankster friend. I thought I was being punk’d. I thought someone, knowing how crazy it makes me when politicians play doctor, wrote this phony bill and said it was up for consideration in the NC legislature.

When more reputable people sent me similar notices, I found out this bill is for real.

Republican Brent Jackson presented this bill, which reads, “A woman may be prosecuted for assault under G.S. 14-33(a) for the illegal use of a narcotic drug as defined in G.S. 90-87, while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug and the addiction or harm is a result of her illegal use of a narcotic drug taken while pregnant. “

The bill goes on to say that the pregnant woman has a defense to prosecution if she is involved in a treatment program before delivery, stayed in the treatment program after delivery and – get this – completed the program.

This is not a good law.

While it may make politicians and voters feel like they are doing something to stop reckless drug-addicted women from using drugs during pregnancy, it demonstrates a lack of knowledge about what addiction is, how it is treated, and the few treatment options open to opioid-addicted pregnant women.

Here are the ways in which this law is bad, and will worsen the health of addicted women and their babies:
1. Addicted women who become pregnant will shun pre-natal care. They won’t want to take the risk of being sent to jail. While proponents of the bill say it should encourage addicted women to seek help, that’s not realistic. It’s contrary to human nature for a sick person to get medical care if that illness it a crime.

Women with addiction who become pregnant are no different from other women. They want all the best things for their baby, and especially want that baby to be healthy. Most women will have already tried desperately to stop using drugs, and are unable to do so. The inability to stop using is one of the symptoms of the disease of addiction, after all. They are loaded down with shame and guilt over using drugs while pregnant. They feel like bad people, and they feel hopeless. They do what humans do when they feel bad about themselves – they hide. They don’t go to doctors.

Fewer and later prenatal visits directly correlate with worse outcomes. Best results for the mom and babies are seen when addiction is treated as the public health problem that it is.

2. Let’s say the woman IS able to stop using drugs on her own somehow. If the woman is addicted to opioids, her pregnancy can be endangered if she stops suddenly. We know, from years of studies, that opioid withdrawal in pregnancy increases the risk for complications such as pre-term labor, miscarriage, placental abruption, and other conditions. Even if nothing catastrophic happens, the baby is more likely to be born early or have a low birth weight. Even if she’s able to stop without calamity, we know that relapse rates are consistently in the 90% range.

3. If the opioid-addicted pregnant woman came to her OB and asked for help with her addiction, what do you think would happen? I’ve seen such patients shuffled around from place to place with no one willing to take responsibility to treat this high-risk patient. Opioid treatment programs, some teaching hospitals, and one of the state-run inpatient facilities in the state, Walter B Jones in Greenville, NC, are the only places I’ve seen that are willing to take care of these women.

I had one pregnant patient who went to our local hospital emergency department to ask for help with her addiction, as soon as she found out she was pregnant. She talked to the doctor there, who called our local management entity (our equivalent of county mental health system). That LME sent a worker to interview her and the worker recommended she get an appointment with an obstetrician to get help. The ER sent her home with the names of OB’s in the area, which, by the way, she already had. On Monday morning she called them, and was told she could be seen in a few weeks, after she got approved for her pregnancy Medicaid, since she had no insurance at present.

Frustrated, she called that doctor’s office back, and explained that she had an addiction and needed help more quickly. She was directed to go to the emergency department but when she told them she’d already gone there, they recommended she go to a detox.

She went to the local detox unit in our area and they would not admit her because, you guessed it, she was pregnant and they said they weren’t equipped to treat pregnant patients. They recommended she go back to the local emergency department.

She did go to an emergency department, but had the good sense to go to Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem. She was admitted to their detox unit and started on buprenorphine. Workers there arranged for her to be admitted to our opioid treatment program immediately after she was stabilized and discharged from their hospital.

She spent four days trying to negotiate the confusing network of care in our state. Some patients may not be that willing to persist after getting no help from three or four sources.

4. Women may be more likely to consider abortion as an option, even if they would like to have the baby. Think about it – if you commit a crime by becoming pregnant while addicted, what’s the quickest way to remain within the law, prevent arrest with its public humiliation? Get rid of the pregnancy. I suspect it’s easier to get an abortion than to get inpatient drug addiction treatment in this state, but I do not know this for sure.

5. The bill lacks knowledge of addiction as a chronic illness. When farmers become politicians and think they can play doctor, we get these nonsense laws. Since addiction is a chronic illness, the treatment won’t have a “completion.” It makes as much sense as saying a diabetic who gets pregnant won’t be prosecuted for eating sugar if she “completes” the treatment for her diabetes.

It reminds me of my patient in primary care who got angry when I told him he would have to keep taking his blood pressure pills in order for them to work. He thought blood pressure pills should cure the disease. He told me he was taking his business elsewhere, to a better doctor who would prescribe something to cure his hypertension, not just keep taking a pill every day to treat it. He could not grasp the concept of a chronic illness.

6. Second, I hate this term “narcotic.” It’s become more of a legal term than medical. In the doctor world, narcotic means anything that could put someone to sleep. “Narco” in Greek, means sleep, thus the association with sleep and sedation. So I went to GS 90-87 to see what the state’s definition is for this word. Turns out they mean cocaine and opioids.
Sleeping pills and benzodiazepines are not mentioned, and neither is marijuana or methamphetamine. Will these drugs also be illegal in pregnancy?

7. These types of laws attempting to punish “bad” women who use drugs while pregnant are unevenly enforced. You won’t see an affluent opioid-addicted pregnant woman incarcerated under this law, but you may see poor or minority women incarcerated. They have fewer resources to avoid prosecution and less voice to speak out against bad laws like these. One only need look at other states with similar laws to see this is true. Just look at the first person to be jailed in Tennessee after their harsh new law was passed last year.

Plus, these laws are not upheld by higher courts. In Ferguson versus City of Charleston, the Supreme Court held that it was an illegal search when hospital workers sent urine samples for drug tests without consent from the mothers.

If North Carolina passes this bill, we will be the second state, after Tennessee, to pass laws making drug use during pregnancy a crime. Do we really want to model ourselves after Tennessee, with all of their mess?

8. If politicians want to take action to prevent harm to babies, they should focus on nicotine. We know smoking in pregnancy is very harmful to the fetus and newborn, and far more women smoke than use drugs. You can read a summary of current knowledge at this CDC site: http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/tobaccousepregnancy/
Why does the NC legislature treat smoking during pregnancy as a public health issue? Why not criminalize smoking while pregnant, since we know much more about the harm caused by cigarettes? I could ask the same question about alcohol as well.
Of course I know the answer to my own question. Alcohol and cigarettes are legal, and have much less stigma than other drugs, even though both kill more people per year than all other drugs combined.

Can’t we please let common sense and medical science drive the bus on this issue? Even if you are mad at pregnant women who use drugs and have a desire to punish them, please refrain from doing so, if only for the sake of the babies, who WILL suffer if this law passes.

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

The “Protect Our Infants Act”

Rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome per 1,000 live births, by mother's county of residence

Rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome per 1,000 live births, by mother’s county of residence

(This map can be seen at:http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6405a4.htm )

I just read an interesting news piece about new legislature named “Protecting Our Infants Act.” This bill was sponsored last year by Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, but died during the session. Then she got support from other congressmen, including Rep. Steve Stivers from Ohio (who happens to represent the area of the country where I was raised, in Southeastern Ohio), and Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. When Majority leader Senator McConnell got onboard as a sponsor of the bill this year, it gained momentum, and is now in a congressional committee, waiting to be sent to the house or Senate.

When I first heard about this new bill, and that Senator McConnell was backing it, I worried it might be something weird and unscientific that would send us backward in time. But after reading the bill online for myself, I’m in favor of it: https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/senate-bill/2722/text

This bill asks the Secretary of Health and Human Services to collect and evaluate all of the best evidence-based information available about how to prevent and treat babies born dependent on opioids. The bill’s actual wording is that the secretary of HHS “shall conduct a study and develop recommendations for preventing and treating prenatal opioid abuse and neonatal abstinence syndrome, soliciting input from nongovernmental entities, including organizations representing patients, health care providers, hospitals, other treatment facilities and other entities, as appropriate.”

The bill asks for Health and Human Services to identify and also report on any gaps in our knowledge, where more research is needed. The bill also requests an evaluation of medical use of opioids during pregnancy, and an assessment regarding access to treatment for opioid-addicted pregnant women and post-partum women. The bill asks for an evaluation of the risk factors for opioid addiction, and the barriers to treatment.

According to the bill, the Secretary of Health and Human Services will collect all this information and post it on a website, available healthcare providers in the U.S., in no less than one year after the bill (hopefully) passes.

Our present Secretary of Health and Human services is Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who replaced Kathleen Sibelius last summer. I didn’t know much about her, so I went to the website for HHS, and found a blog post of hers, addressing our epidemic of opioid addiction: http://www.hhs.gov/blog/2015/03/26/its-time-act-reduce-opioid-related-injuries-deaths.html

I really like what I read. In her blog post, she emphasizes three areas which need attention: wider distribution of naloxone to prevent opioid overdose deaths, better prescribing practices by doctors, and…“using medication-assisted treatment to slowly move people out of opioid addiction.”

What a relief. She supports MAT. I mean, one would hope and expect such support for evidence-based treatments, but as my readers know, sometimes politicians take strong positions on matters about which they know little (oh yes I’m talking about Tennessee).

If the Secretary does a good job, this is a golden opportunity to promote evidence-based treatment of opioid addiction in pregnancy: MAT.

I also think some politicians could learn things they didn’t expect.

Is it possible that with such a prominent seal of approval, both methadone and buprenorphine treatment of opioid addiction will move out of the dark ages? Perhaps politicians will say, “Oh I now see I don’t know what I’m talking about when I limit access to treatment at methadone and buprenorphine programs! How foolish of me!”

Is it possible that someday in the future I’m going to call a certain obstetrician in my area about the methadone dose of a patient we both treat, and he will say, as he’s said before, “It’s wrong to treat pregnant patients with methadone. You need to get them off that stuff!”

And I will say…please go to the Health and Human Services website, to read what the experts say, since you won’t believe me. And he will read. And he will change his mind. He will begin to encourage all his opioid-addicted patients to seek effective, evidence-based treatment… And the health of the whole community will improve as we come to agree on evidence-based solutions to medical problems.

So my first train of thought was a happy engine, chugging along with optimism and relief. Then came the caboose of negativity.

Why do doctors need to have the Secretary of Health and Human Services research this issue for them? For prevention, yes, that’s a public health issue and more research would be valuable. But to find out how to treat a medical issue?? If doctors have a question about how to deal with a medical issue, we have sources that summarize and review best data to date. We go to a reliable source, to the experts in the field. For the topic of opioid addiction in pregnancy, one would ask obstetricians and addiction medicine doctors.

Oh wait. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, along with the American Society of Addiction Medicine, already have published a position paper of best practices in this area. It is titled, “Opioid Abuse, Dependence, and Addiction in Pregnancy.” They didn’t hide their report in a dark cave. They published it. They posted it on the internet:

In fact, if you Google “pregnancy and opioid addiction,” one of the first options is ACOG’s paper: http://www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Health-Care-for-Underserved-Women/Opioid-Abuse-Dependence-and-Addiction-in-Pregnancy
And for those people who are deeply puzzled by how to treat opioid addiction in pregnancy, this is the summary sentence of the report, published in 2012: “The current standard of care for pregnant women with opioid dependence is referral for opioid-assisted therapy with methadone, but emerging evidence suggests that buprenorphine also should be considered.”

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Then I Googled “american academy of pediatrics and neonatal abstinence syndrome,” because I figure who knows kids better than pediatricians, and my first choice was a state of the art review article from 2014 describing NAS and its treatment in detail.

After considering the “Protecting our Infants Act,” I have several observations. First, it’s not terribly hard to find state of the art information about the treatment of opioid addiction in pregnancy, and the treatment of neonatal abstinence syndrome, if the healthcare worker really wants to find it. But if the healthcare worker can’t or won’t accept these answers due to ideology, a report from the Secretary of HHS may carry more weight than the science that’s already available.

I also believe we have a whole lot more to learn in this field. This new Act’s best feature is the mandate to assess areas where we need more research, and to investigate barriers to treatment, because there are many. For example, Eastern Tennessee has one of the highest rates of NAS in all the country, yet that state denied a certificate of need for a methadone clinic to be established to serve that area. I do believe that history will judge those politicians harshly.

I hope the bill passes. It would be interesting to see what the Act’s current sponsor, Senator Mitch McConnell, would think about the DHH report.

Pain Clinics Behaving Badly

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I worry about pain clinics. More specifically, I worry about what happens to patients enrolled in opioid treatment programs who transfer to pain clinics.

Weirdly, now there are pain clinics that also claim to treat opioid addiction. I’m not saying that the same doctor couldn’t do a great job of treating both problems, but I worry a great deal when that doctor seems to approach these two distinct medical issues as if they were the same medical issue.

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) of opioid addiction with methadone or buprenorphine is NOT the equivalent of treating chronic pain. When I call my MAT patients’ other doctors to coordinate their care, quite often these doctors ask me if it would violate the patient’s pain contract with my facility if they were to prescribe opioids for a few weeks. When I tell them I don’t treat pain, but addiction, they are puzzled. I elaborate, and use the opportunity to educate the doctor about opioid addiction and its treatment with methadone and buprenorphine.

To be sure, there’s overlap between the two disorders. Studies estimate that anywhere from a third to a half of opioid addicts also have chronic pain issues. And we know that the treatment of chronic pain (an arbitrary definition is more than three months) with opioids can cause the patient to develop a second medical problem, addiction.

Not all opioid addicts have pain. And not all chronic pain patients develop addiction. Many people who live with chronic pain don’t use opioids. In fact, we don’t have evidence that shows long-term opioids help people with chronic pain all that much, due to the tolerance that builds quickly to short-acting opioids and their anti-pain effect. The human body makes changes to compensate for the presence of opioids, and becomes less sensitive to those opioids. Typically, the dose has to be repeatedly increased to get the same anti-pain effect, a phenomenon known as tolerance. Many of these patients may actually have worsening of their pain, called hyperalgesia, due to the changes the body makes in how pain messages are processed.

Some patients can be treated with opioids long-term (longer than three months) and continue to benefit from them without developing any addiction to them. I don’t usually see these patients, since they are doing well in their treatment at pain clinics. Possibly for genetic reasons, they never develop addiction. By addiction, I mean the obsession with and craving for opioids, and inability to control the use of opioids. They will certainly become opioid dependent, and experience physical withdrawal if opioids are stopped suddenly, but that’s physiologic. The mental obsession, a hallmark of the disease of addiction, is not present.

To illustrate further, let’s look at the new guidelines from the fifth and latest edition of the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, more commonly known as the DSM. In the latest version, eleven criteria are used to decide if the patient has mild, moderate, or severe substance use disorder:
1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than the you meant to
2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to
3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance
4. Cravings and urges to use the substance
5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home or school, because of substance use
6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships
7. Giving up important social, occupational or recreational activities because of substance use
8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts the you in danger
9. Continuing to use, even when the you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance
10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance)
11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance.
Only the last two criteria are physical; the rest of the criteria have to do with psychological indicators. In order to diagnose mild substance use disorder the patient has to fulfill two or three of the eleven criteria; if four or five criteria are met, the patient has moderate substance use disorder, and if six or more are met, the patient has severe substance use disorder
Addiction interferes with the patient’s ability to control the use of prescribed opioids. All sorts of bad things can happen, up to and including opioid overdose death, when a person with opioid addiction is given a month’s worth of opioids by a pain clinic.

This is my beef with pain clinic physicians. I’ve seen several examples of them prescribing opioids for a month at a time to chronic pain patients who also have been diagnosed with opioid addiction. These doctors set patients up for failure when they prescribe a month’s worth of heavy-duty opioids like Opana or fentanyl. The patient takes too many pain pills too soon, ends up in withdrawal, and gets kicked out of the pain clinic for misusing the prescription.

Is this unexpected? Is this the patient’s fault? Did the patient bring it on herself because she didn’t follow doctor’s instructions? I say an emphatic NO! Given what we know about addiction, it’s completely predictable, even expected. I’d argue it’s a failure on the physician’s part to understand the nature of addiction.

Maybe the doctor didn’t know the patient had addiction, you may argue. Maybe – but if these patients are transferring from an opioid treatment center, they would have methadone or buprenorphine in their urine drug screen. If either of those drugs were present, wouldn’t it be prudent to ask the patient for permission to call the local opioid treatment program, to see if there are records available? Wouldn’t it be prudent to see if your new patient is STILL an active patient at the local opioid treatment program?

Sometimes opioid-addicted people must take opioids for acute pain disorders, but there are ways to minimize risk, like having a dependable non-addict hold the pill bottle, only prescribing a few days at a time, and doing pill counts. Since acute pain is a short-term problem, it doesn’t carry the same risk as month after month of opioid prescribing.

I do have specific advice for the pain clinics of the world, particularly in my part of the world:
1. Get old records. If the patient is transferring from my opioid addiction treatment program to your office-based opioid treatment program, we have essential information that can help you give the best and safest treatment. More likely, you’ll get information that will keep you from harming the patient.
For example, if you want to start the patient on buprenorphine, it would be essential to know the date of the last dose of methadone, and the amount. Otherwise, you could put your new patient into precipitated withdrawal, and unpleasant experience all around.
As another example, if you’re treating a pain patient with fentanyl, you may have second thoughts – hopefully – if we have old records describing the patient’s past near-fatal overdose from fentanyl.
2. Don’t be an asshole when I call you to get information about a patient who transferred from my program to yours, then back to mine after having a relapse back to active addiction. It’s not my fault, and certainly not the patient’s fault. You should have known that a person with opioid addiction, doing well on methadone maintenance, would decompensate when you switched her to fentanyl patches and a hundred and twenty oxycodone for breakthrough pain.
I’m not trying to rub it in your face, but I am trying to educate you, in the nicest way possible, that you made a mistake. I’m hoping if I can explain to you why the patient’s decompensation was predictable, you won’t continue making the same mistake. I’m also making sure you won’t keep prescribing opioids for this particular patient.
3. Don’t let your physician assistant prescribe buprenorphine for “pain” but then also list opioid addiction on the patient’s problem list. It’s disingenuous. We all know that under DATA 2000, physician assistants and nurse practitioners can’t prescribe buprenorphine for addiction. You say it’s for pain, so that a physician extender can see this patient, but then have to tell the patient’s insurance it IS for addiction to get them to pay for it. Besides being bad medical practice, isn’t that insurance fraud?
4. When the family member of one of your patients tells you that patient is misusing her medications, please check it out. Yes, sometimes people do call prescribers trying to interrupt a patient’s treatment for malicious reasons. We have the same problem at our opioid treatment program. However, we do all we can to check on patient safety. If the third party says your patient is injecting your prescribed medication, it’s easy to call the patient into the office to look for track marks. (You do know what those look like, right?)

Doctors at pain clinics could say I’m just mad because they sometimes “steal” our patients. While I’m not happy when patients leave our treatment program, no one can “steal” patients because no one owns patients.

The biggest part of my disgruntlement all centers on the four behaviors I’ve described above. If new pain clinics/addiction treatment programs were accepting our patients who were doing well, and were appropriate for an office-based addiction treatment program…I’d be fine with that. If it worked out for the patient, and saved them time and money with no increased risk of relapse, great. I love to see patients doing well.

But I don’t think all pain clinics give good care, and I’m disturbed when patients suffer set-backs due to mismanagement.

North Carolina Pregnancy & Opioid Exposure Project

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Imagine being in a room filled with more than four hundred people: social workers, nurses, substance abuse counselors, and doctors specializing in obstetrics, pediatrics, and addiction medicine. Every one of them are there to learn how to care for pregnant women using opioids or addicted to opioids.

This actually happened earlier this month at the POEP conference in Greensboro, NC. (POEP stands for Pregnancy & Opioid Exposure Project. You can learn more about this organization at their website: http://www.ncpoep.org )

This organization, funded through a federal block grant through the NC Department of Mental Health, is run by the UNC School of Social Work. The organization has managed to bring together many of the people in our state who take care of pregnant women with opioid addiction. The goal of POEP is to disseminate information, resources, and technical assistance regarding all aspects of opioid exposure in pregnancy. The organization was formed in 2012 in response to concerns about the problem of pregnant women being exposed to opioids.

This organization is talking about all opioid use in pregnancy, not only about addiction in pregnancy. Some pregnancy women are prescribed opioids for the treatment of pain. These women may have physical dependence on opioids, though they may not have the mental obsession and compulsion to take opioids. However, the same problems can be seen in the newborn whatever the reason the woman takes opioids, so there is overlap in the problems faced.

This conference had renowned speakers; Marjorie Meyer, an expert in maternal-fetal medicine from Vermont, was the keynote speaker. This doctor participated in the MOTHER trials, and also set up an innovative treatment method in Vermont for mothers addicted to opioids. She has written about her data, and contributed greatly to our knowledge about buprenorphine in pregnancy (see my blog post of February 28, 2015).

Dr. Hendree Jones, lead author of the MOTHER study, did an excellent session on myths about medication-assisted treatment in pregnancy. She’s also a world-renowned leader in the field of addiction in women.

Dr. Stephen Kandall was there, and spoke about the challenges of advocating for women with addiction, with some historical perspective. He wrote an outstanding book, “Substance and Shadow: Women and Addiction in the United States,” which is one of my all-time favorites. It’s one of the best books about females and addiction. This conference was the first time I met Dr. Kandall, and I got all creepy-gush-y, and dithered about how much I loved his book. I can be such a nerd at times, but he was very polite and gracious.

There were many sessions going on at the same time, so it was impossible to go to all of the sessions that I wanted to attend. Other speakers talked about how best to coordinate care for pregnant women when they go to the hospital to deliver their babies, how to work with the court system if the pregnant woman has legal problems, and how to work with female patients on opioids about family planning.

I was honored to be one of the four-doctor panel that was organized to answer audience questions about medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine and methadone during pregnancy. We got some great questions, like how to deal with co-occurring benzodiazepine use during pregnancy. Our session was only forty-five minutes long, and we probably could have spent a few hours answering all their questions. I was also impressed by the thoughtful opinions and recommendations from the other three doctors, all leaders in our state.

This conference was a great experience. I felt like many of the attendees got a better view of what opioid-dependent pregnant women need, and where and how to direct them for the best care. I’m pleased people in our state cared enough to start the difficult work of informing families and care providers about the problem of opioid use and addiction during pregnancy.

POEP has a great website that I’ll recommend to the pregnant women I treat, and I’ll also recommend it to their obstetricians. That site has clear information not only for families, but also for care providers. Here are the fourteen important points for infant care providers, taken directly from the POEP website:

“Key Messages for Infant Care Providers Working with Families of an Opioid-Exposed Newborn
________________________________________
1. Parents should be counseled as early as possible (preferably well before delivery) about the need for close monitoring of an opioid-exposed infant.[2]
2. Parents should be encouraged to disclose any maternal opioid use that occurred during pregnancy and should be treated in a nonjudgmental manner.[3]
3. Hospital care of the newborn should be family-centered, meaning that the parents should be a driver in the care plan.
4. Parents should receive education about how opioid-exposed infants are monitored and how neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is treated at their delivery hospital.
5. There are various approaches to monitoring for neonatal abstinence syndrome in opioid-exposed infants, such as the use of the Finnegan Scoring tool.[2],[3]
6. Monitoring for the onset of NAS may mean the infant will be monitored in the hospital for up to 5 days.
7. Infants at risk of NAS may be monitored in the mother’s room, in the newborn nursery, special care nursery or neonatal intensive care, depending on hospital protocols and resources.
8. There are various approaches to the management of NAS including non-pharmacologic interventions and pharmacologic therapy, depending on the needs of the infant. Approaches include:
• Non-pharmacologic management of NAS: environmental controls emphasizing quiet zones, low lighting, and gentle handling. Loose swaddling, as well as holding and slow rocking of infant may be helpful. The use of a pacifier for excessive sucking is also helpful.[2],[6],[7]
• Pharmacologic management of NAS: the use of a variety of medication to ease the withdrawal symptoms of the infant. Common medications include opioids (dilute tincture of opium, morphine, or methadone) and phenobarbital.[2],[6],[7]
9. Breastfeeding is encouraged for women in medication assisted treatment, unless there are medical reasons to avoid it. Reasons to avoid breastfeeding include an HIV infection or specific medication for which breastfeeding is not safe.[2],[3]
10. Infants experiencing NAS may have difficulty establishing breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. Women may need additional encouragement and lactation consultation to support breastfeeding.[2],[3]
11. Whenever possible, having the newborn room-in with the mother while in the hospital is encouraged. Benefits include opportunity to initiate breastfeeding, bonding and decreased need for treatment of NAS.[1]
12. Some infants will experience NAS as a result of maternal opiate use through a treatment program (such as a methadone maintenance program) or by prescription (such as buprenorphine for an opioid use disorder or prescription narcotics for pain management). The opioid exposure alone in situations where the mother was adherent to a prescribed treatment plan would not constitute an appropriate reason for referral to Child Protective Services. See structured intake 1407 http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/csm-60/man/
13. Not all infants at risk of NAS are identified in the hospital, particularly in situations where maternal use of opioids has not been disclosed. This may be due to women not disclosing legal or illegal use of opioids.[2]
14. Withdrawal symptoms from opioids may appear in the infant after discharge to home. It is important for providers working with the infant and the family in the community (pediatricians, CC4C, Early Intervention) to be aware of signs and symptoms of NAS. If the infant displays any of these signs or symptoms, the family should be encouraged to seek pediatric care promptly.[2]”

North Carolina has a great start in addressing the problem of opioid-exposed newborns. The organizers of POEP can stand as an example of how other states can begin to address this challenging situation. Neighboring states (you know I’m talking about Tennessee!) have walked in the opposite direction, preferring to view opioid use during pregnancy as a crime rather than the medical problem that it is. That’s sad, because an aggressive attitude of judgment is correlated with poorer outcomes for both mother and infant.

Congratulations to the organizers of the POEP conference. Hopefully it was the first of many more to come.

Book Review: “Her Best Kept Secret: Why Women Drink-and How they can Regain Control,” by Gabrielle Glaser

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This book disappointed me. The title suggests a book of interesting research and conjecture about the reasons women drink. I was hoping for new insights that I could use in my practice with patients who drink alcohol. As it turned out, most of the book wasn’t about what the title implied. That topic was lightly touched on in the beginning, and there was a bit of summary at the end, but way too much of the book was about why AA sucks and why women don’t get the right treatment.

I liked the first third of the book, as it was basically history of alcohol and history of addiction treatment. She wrote about the shame women feel about having alcohol addiction, but that was brief. Overall, that portion of the book was mildly interesting, if a little tedious.

Then the next third of the book felt like an attack on AA. I admit I’m sensitive to AA bashing. I know AA works for many people, and I also know AA has never claimed to be the answer for every problem drinker. Given AA’s stance of “we will help you if you want help,” I don’t think it’s productive to berate the organization if you don’t want to go to their meetings.

My own opinion is that if you don’t like AA or don’t think it works for you, then fine. Take your ass on out of the meetings and go find another way that helps you. After all, AA members are under no obligation to help anyone; they help only because they want to, because it helps keep them sober. They don’t recruit new members, and they don’t ask for any money.

The author’s logic isn’t consistent. First she says AA isn’t helpful for women because it tells them they have to admit powerlessness and that interferes with women’s recovery process, rather than helping it. She says it’s insulting for women to be told that “your best thinking got you here,” and the slogans are too trite or hackneyed to help intelligent female problem drinkers who have problems with alcohol. She says women should be told they do have the power to make changes and stop drinking.

But then the next section, she says women are often victimized by men in meetings who have more time in sobriety, and thus more able to take sexual advantage of the fragile newcomer women. So which is it? Are the newcomer women tender blossoms with have no idea how to thwart a creepy man’s advances? Or are these women so powerful and capable that the simplicity of AA is insulting to their intelligence and capabilities?

Alcoholic Anonymous is made up of humans. Humans with drinking problems. It seems disingenuous to expect these humans to behave better than people in other human organizations (Catholic Church, for example). Also, I suspect some alcoholic women may have encountered creepy male advances in bars.

What kind of treatment does this author say works best? She correctly champions cognitive behavioral therapy and Motivational Enhancement therapy.

As an example, she describes an excellent treatment program that consists of treatment sessions from two therapists, with the addition of other services as needed (primary care consult, mental health provider). This treatment is done as an outpatient, where the person stays in a nice hotel close to the therapists’ office.

It costs ten grand. Ten thousand dollars.

This author gushes about how these therapists are so caring and dedicated that they even eat lunch with the patient. I would hope so. If I were paying ten thousand dollars for a few weeks of therapy, I’d expect my therapists not only to eat lunch with me, but also tuck me in at night and tell me a bedtime story!

So overall, I don’t think the ideas in this book extend to any new territory. Twelve step bashing has been done by many authors, so that’s dull. I found much of the book to be derivative, containing ideas from earlier books about women and addiction. Plus, I was surprised by how little time this author spent describing real barriers many women face when they are seeking help for alcohol addiction. For example, women are the primary caregivers for their children. Male partners may not want to take over childcare responsibilities while the woman gets treatment. Many times the woman’s partner is also in active addiction, and seeks to deter or undermine her efforts to get help and to stay in recovery. Transportation is a big problem, especially in rural areas with no public transportation. She may not have a car she can drive to treatment each day.

These issues were not addressed at any depth.

If you want to read a book about women and addiction, I highly recommend you read, “Substance and Shadow,” by Stephen Kandall, or “Women Under the Influence,” by the CASA program. Both are better written and with more information.

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