Durham, North Carolina: First in the South to Provide Naloxone to Departing Inmates

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The county jail’s addiction treatment program in Durham County, North Carolina, just started giving naloxone overdose prevention kits to inmates leaving their program.

This program, called STARR (Substance Abuse Treatment and Recidivism Reduction) consists of around 83 hours of group therapy, addiction treatment education, and weekly 12-step meetings. STARR participants are also taught how to respond to an overdose, and how to use naloxone. Inmates completing this program are also eligible to enter an additional voluntary four-week program known as GRAD. All graduating inmates are offered a naloxone kit.

At any one time, the STARR program has about 40 inmates in treatment.

Only three county jails in North Carolina offer addiction treatment services. Besides Durham County, Mecklenburg and Buncombe Counties have similar addiction treatment programs, but neither of the latter two offer naloxone kits. The development of education and prevention of overdose was achieved only after long efforts by the STARR program’s director, Randy Tucker, collaboration with the Harm Reduction Coalition.

Durham County is setting the right example for the rest of the nation.

It’s important to teach inmates with addiction how to avoid overdose. Inmates with addiction are at high risk for a fatal overdose during the first few weeks after their incarceration. While in jail, their tolerance has dropped. If they leave jail and relapse using the same amount as before they went to jail, an overdose is likely, particularly if they are using opioids.

Studies on all continents show this marked increase in overdose death among opioid addicts leaving incarceration. The degree of increased risk is debatable. Some sources say the risk is increased four-fold and others estimate a hundred-fold increase in overdose deaths risk, mostly within the first two weeks after leaving incarceration.

Last year, four people leaving the Durham County jail had fatal overdoses.

If the US treated addiction as the public health problem that it is, all state, county, and federal jails would provide naloxone upon dismissal from incarceration. (I won’t even get into the arguably more important issue of providing adequate addition treatment to inmates whose main problem is addiction). But we don’t do that in this country, still preferring to see addiction as bad behavior by deviants.

Ferguson, Missouri…Baltimore, Maryland…think how the attitudes and outlook of citizens could change, if jailers started handing out naloxone kits to departing arrestees.

Even without words, this action would go a long way toward giving arrestees the message that law enforcement saw their lives are valuable and worth saving.

Starting Buprenorphine in the Emergency Department

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An interesting study in the April 28th Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) looked at three types of intervention for opioid addiction in patients presenting to the Emergency Department for care. It found that patients were more likely to be in addiction treatment and free from illicit opioids when started on buprenorphine in the emergency department, and given a referral to buprenorphine prescriber.

This study, done at an urban teaching hospital in Connecticut, screened patients in their emergency department and uncovered 329 patients with opioid addiction. Some came for help for the opioid addiction (34%) but the others came to the ER for other medical problems.

These patients were randomized to three interventions: one group was given written information about addiction treatment programs in the area. The second group was given this information, plus a brief intervention describing the various ways to treat opioid addiction. Patients in this group were linked with the referral and transportation to addiction treatment was arranged.

The third group had the same intervention as the second group, plus they were prescribed three days of buprenorphine, dosed at 8mg on day 1, and 16mg on days 2 and 3. Patients in this group were provided free office- based buprenorphine treatment for ten weeks, with visits ranging from several times per week to every two weeks, depending on how the patient was doing.

The study’s primary outcome was to compare how many patients in each of the three intervention groups were engaged in addiction treatment thirty days after their emergency department visit.

The results were what you would expect. People in the group that started actual treatment in the emergency department with buprenorphine were significantly more likely to be in addiction treatment thirty days later. In this group, 78% were in treatment. In the group given only treatment referrals, 37% were in treatment at 30 days, and 45% of the people given referral and brief intervention were engaged in treatment at 30 days.

Also, patients in the buprenorphine group reported greater reductions in the number of days of illicit opioid use than did the referral and brief intervention groups. The groups showed no significant difference in behaviors that increase risk for contracting HIV.

These patients were fairly ill, with high rates of co-occurring mental health disorders, with more than half reporting prior psychiatric diagnoses. About a fourth of these patients required acute care for a medical problem other than opioid addiction at their emergency department visit. These patients also had the expected high rates of concurrent other drug and alcohol use. In other words, these patients were about as ill as the average patient with opioid addiction.

However, this study didn’t include patients who were so sick that they required hospitalization, which may have skewed the data somewhat. Because services were free, this likely enhanced retention in treatment, though the authors say that 80% of all patients in the study were insured.
That’s an unusually high percentage, as compared with what I see in my rural area, in a state which did not expand Medicaid access.

The bottom line is that medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine appears to be an effective way to get opioid-addicted patients into treatment and reduce illicit drug use in these patients. That would seem common sense, but we now have a study to support that assumption.

I love the idea of treatment being started in the emergency department, with close follow-up in an office setting or opioid treatment program. As the authors of this study pointed out, starting treatment for opioid addiction in the emergency department is very similar to how other chronic diseases are treated. For example, patients with new-onset diabetes or high blood pressure are often started on medication to treat the disorder in the emergency department, with a close follow up recommended with a primary care doctor.

Why do we treat the disease of addiction any differently?

My readers know the answer, of course: stigma and lack of education and understanding on the part of health care professionals.

As the authors pointed out in the discussion section of the study, even the referral group got more intervention than the average opioid addict visiting an emergency department in this country.

My patients still report being treated with derision and rudeness by emergency department staff. Not only are their medical problems including addiction not being addressed, they are shamed for being addicted. They are given powerful verbal and non-verbal messages that they are bad people, a pain in the ass to deal with, and unwelcome in the healthcare facility.

You could not invent a better recipe for continued drug addiction and avoidance of future medical care.

This study shows how easily this could be fixed. I would require emergency department doctors to get DATA 2000 certified, and the education of other healthcare professionals too. I don’t know how to initiate this solution but it can’t be done quickly enough.

I’ll say it again: we will know we are treating addiction well when it’s no longer easier to get drugs than treatment.

Split Dosing of Methadone May Reduce NAS

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I just read a new article (McCarthy et al, Journal of Addiction Medicine, Vol. 9, (2), pp105-110, March/April 2015) on methadone dosing during pregnancy. This study’s data showed reduced incidence of withdrawal in babies born to moms on divided doses of methadone compared to once-daily dosing. This data also showed reduced incidence of withdrawal in these moms on higher total doses of methadone compared to what we have seen in the past with lower maternal doses.

Current practice is to adjust the maternal dose of methadone according to how she feels. If she has withdrawal signs and symptoms, we increase her dose. We assume that if the mother’s at an adequate dose, the fetus should be doing OK too. We know reduced dosing of methadone during pregnancy is not recommended due to higher relapse rates in the mom, and worse fetal and maternal outcomes. Additionally, past studies showed no clear relationship between the maternal methadone dose and the likelihood of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). In other words, increased maternal dose doesn’t increase the incidence or severity of withdrawal in the newborn.

However, we also have past studies which showed a significant decrease in fetal heart rates and fetal movement during times of peak methadone levels (several hours after dosing), compared to fetal heart rates and movement during times of trough blood levels (end of the 24-hour dosing cycle). Those studies showed more normal fetal heart rates and movement after splitting the total dose into equal doses, which is called split dosing. Due to this data, many opioid treatment program doctors have been trying to split the mom’s total methadone dose into two halves, a morning and evening dose.

The authors of this new study decided to build on past data and look at more than once-daily dosing of methadone during pregnancy. They also increased the total dose of methadone to treat any maternal report of withdrawal.

The study is a bit complicated. It was a retrospective chart review done in an eight-hundred patient opioid addiction treatment program in California from June 2008 until January 2013. The study followed sixty-two pregnant patients who were 83% white, 13% Hispanic, 2% African American, and 2% Asian. Of these sixty-two patients, 71% used primarily prescription opioids and 29% used mainly heroin. Some of these patients were already pregnant when they enrolled in treatment and some (32%) became pregnant after starting treatment with methadone. Sixty-six percent of these patients were smokers.

All the patients were moved to twice-daily dosing within several weeks of entry into treatment. Subsequent increases and further dividing of maternal dose was determined by maternal report of opioid withdrawal, and on methadone trough blood levels. All efforts were made to maintain maternal blood level in the “therapeutic range.” Most women dosed three or four times per day by the last trimester, and the average maternal dose at delivery was 152mg per day.
The highest dose in this study was seen in a pregnant patient who was a fast metabolizer of methadone. She required a total dose of 415mg, which was split into six doses. Interestingly, her infant did not need treatment for NAS.

The outcomes of the study were unusual in several ways.

Of the fourteen hundred urine drug screens collected on these pregnant patients, 88.4% were negative for illicit drugs. The mean gestational age was 38 weeks, and only 18% of the babies were born before 37 weeks gestation.

But here is the most noteworthy finding: only 29% of the babies had neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) that was severe enough to need treatment. As in other studies, this study showed no correlation between maternal dose and the incidence of NAS.

In the past, the incidence of neonatal withdrawal syndrome has been estimated at 60-80%, though the MOTHER study of 2010 (Jones et. al) found 50% of infants born to both moms on methadone and moms on buprenorphine had withdrawal that was severe enough to need treatment. (That study also found infants born to moms on buprenorphine stayed in the hospital half as long as babies born to moms on methadone, and also had much less severe NAS.)

In this present study, the babies conceived during methadone treatment were not significantly more likely to have NAS than the babies born to moms who conceived prior to entering medication-assisted treatment with methadone.

Male infants were a little more likely to need treatment for NAS than the females.

The authors concluded that divided methadone dosing and adequate methadone dosing during pregnancy increased maternal recovery and resulted in less stress on developing fetuses. The authors postulate there was less sensitization to repeated episodes of intrauterine withdrawal, which ultimately resulted in much lower rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome.

The authors also identified some limitations of their study, and recommended further investigation.

Over the last few years, doctors in North Carolina have been trying to do split dosing on pregnant women when possible. To do this, the woman must be stable enough to manage the second half of the dose, given as a take home. If there’s an addicted male partner at home, that second dose may fall into the wrong hands, and the pregnant patient can get shorted part of her dose. That’s not a good thing during pregnancy, so it’s all about balancing risks with benefits.

This is an intriguing study, but it’s probably too soon to change what we are doing in OTPs. I know I’d like to hear how ASAM experts interpret this information.

The information in this study was gleaned from a retrospective review of patients, which may not be as good a study as a prospective double-blind study, if such could be conducted.

I’m impressed with the 66% smoking rate. I estimate that around 95% of pregnant patients at the OTPs where I work are addicted to nicotine. But I live in a tobacco state, and the study, done in California, has fewer smokers. I think that might be a significant difference, because we know NAS is more like to occur in smokers. Did that play a role in the lower NAS incidence found in this study?

Did the authors of this study take any extra measures to ensure their pregnant patients were living in a safe environment, conducive to recovery? Are the authors sure their pregnant patients were able to consume all of their take home doses? Were any doses diverted, willingly or unwillingly, to other people? Sometimes female patients live with partners who are also addicted, and the patients may be tempted or coerced into giving a dose to a partner in opioid withdrawal. If this happened it could change conclusions of this study.

I suspect the average maternal dose in this study was higher than at most opioid treatment programs in my area. As the authors concluded, this likely improved the mothers’ health and outcomes. This study had a very low rate of positive drug screens, so these patients appear to have been doing exceptionally well in treatment. So is it possible that there could be less withdrawal in babies born to moms on higher doses? That seems counterintuitive, but the authors do suggest that could be why they had low NAS incidence.

The pregnant women in this study got more counseling and support from their OTP than may be provided in other OTPs. The patients in this study had a weekly meeting with a pregnancy counselor, weekly group meeting for education and support facilitated by the clinic physician, psychiatric assessment, and monthly supportive psychotherapy. They got weekly urine drug screens, so there was close accountability. They also had methadone trough blood levels drawn when needed.

The study presents intriguing data. We need more information, more studies to see if higher and divided methadone doses will provide better outcomes with less NAS, as was seen in this study.

Opioid Addicts in Indiana Contract HIV

aaaaaaaaaaaaindianaThe New York Times ran an article 5/5/15 about a small town in rural Indiana that is facing a relative epidemic of new cases of HIV.

Austin, Indiana, a town of only 4200, has more than 140 people just diagnosed with HIV. The town is struggling to understand what to do about this epidemic, since the area has had a low HIV rate in the past.

The new cases of HIV were intravenous opioid addicts, and Opana was specifically mentioned by the opioid addicts in the article.

As in many small towns, needle exchange has been met with resistance from citizens who feel giving free needles to addicts only serves to encourage them to use more drugs.

Fortunately, the Indiana governor has authorized a needle exchange program for the area where addicts were sometimes using the same needle as many as three hundred times. Unfortunately, the needle exchange is not being run according to best practices. People must sign up for the service. Obviously, many opioid addicts who could benefit from free new needles are hesitant to register with anyone, due to the shame and stigma associated with addiction in this country.

To add to the difficulty, local police still arrest any addict found with needles, unless they are enrolled with the needle exchange. In other words, if one addict signs up for needle exchange and distributes these new needles to other drug users, those users could still get arrested if the police find their needles. Police say they are doing this to force addicts to register with the needle exchange.

We already know, from decades of studies, that actions like these by the police erode trust in the whole needle exchange program. Studies show needle exchange works best when people aren’t asked to register, and are allowed to procure free needles for other people who won’t come to a needle exchange. These type programs are very effective at halting the spread of HIV

The article only tangentially mentions treatment; it says some intravenous drug users have gone to a residential treatment center about 30 miles away, and others remain on a waiting list.

Sadly, no mention is made of medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction with buprenorphine and methadone.

I did my own research: residents of Austin can drive to an opioid addiction treatment center less than a half hour away, in Charlestown, Indiana Also, there are at least two OTPs in Louisville,, only a few minutes farther, in Kentucky.

I hope someone is telling all the opioid addicts about this option. We know that after an opioid-addicted person enters medication-assisted treatment, the risk of contracting HIV drops at least three-fold. Thankfully HIV can now be treated, and is more like a chronic disease than the death sentence it was twenty-five years ago, but wouldn’t it be better to prevent HIV in the first place?

I fear Austin, Indiana is a harbinger of things to come in other small towns in our nation. Let’s stop with the politics, and get patients into medication-assisted treatment. Let’s do unrestricted needle exchange, and let’s hand out naloxone kits!

Is Heroin the New Opana?

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From CDC data released 3/15

From CDC data released 3/15

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new data last month showing a rapid rise in heroin overdose deaths. While total overdose deaths from opioids remained level for the past few years, deaths involving heroin escalated sharply.

The rate has tripled since 2010, and nearly quadrupled since 2000. Males have a four times higher rate than females with the highest rate seen in white males aged 18 to 44. All areas of the country had increased heroin overdose death rates, but the highest were seen in the Midwest, with the Northeast right behind them. The South, for a change, had the lowest rate of heroin deaths, after the West.

Those of us treating patients at OTPs knew heroin was moving into areas where pain pills once dominated, but I had no idea deaths had tripled in three years. That is appalling even to me, and I see appalling things all of the time. I can’t stress enough how bad this is.

Why is this happening? I’ve read and heard various opinions:

 Some people speculate that since marijuana became legal, that crop is less profitable to Mexican farmers, who switched to growing opium poppies. This is just a theory, though the timing supports the premise. I don’t know how it can be proved, short of taking surveys of Mexican farmers, which seems problematic and unlikely to happen.

 As we implemented measures to reduce the availability of prescription opioids, the price increased. Heroin is now cheaper than pain pills in many areas, and heroin’s purity has increased. Many addicts who can’t afford pain pills switch to heroin to prevent withdrawal. NIDA (National Institute for Drug Addiction) estimates one in fifteen people who use prescription opioids for non-medical reasons will try heroin at some point in their addiction.

Maybe that’s why the South still has the lowest heroin overdose death rates: we still have plenty of prescription opioid pain pills on the black market.

 With the increased purity, heroin can be snorted instead of injected. Many people start using heroin by snorting, feeling that’s safer than injection. It probably is safer, but addiction being what it is, many of these people end up injecting heroin at some point.

 Heroin has become more socially acceptable. In the past, heroin was considered a hard-core drug that was used by inner city minorities. Now that rural and suburban young adults are using heroin, it may have lost some of its reputation as a hazardous drug.

Most experts in the field agree that much of the increase in heroin use is an unintended consequence of decreasing the amount of illicit prescription opioids on the street. But we are doing the right thing by making prescription opioids less available. Physicians are less likely to overprescribe and that’s essential to the health of our nation.

Now it’s critical that we provide all opioid addicts with quick access to effective treatment, no matter where they live.

The face of heroin addiction has changed. It is no longer only inner-city minorities who are using and dying from heroin; now Midwestern young men from the suburbs and rural areas are the most likely to be using and dying from heroin.

In the past, when drug addiction was seen as a problem of the poor and down-trodden (in other words, inner-city minorities), the general public didn’t get too excited. But when addiction affected people in the middle classes, there was a public outcry. The Harrison Act of 1914 was passed due to public demand for stronger drug laws.

I think the same thing will happen now. Suburban parents will organize and demand solutions from elected officials for this wave of heroin addiction. Indeed, I think that’s already started to happen.

Let’s make sure a big part of the solution is effective treatment.

Let’s make treatment as easy to get as heroin.

New OTP Guidelines Issued by SAMHSA

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Our nation’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration just published new guidelines for opioid treatment programs, released in late March. SAMHSA updates the guidelines in order to re-interpret the existing federal regulations in the face of changing medical issues faced by opioid treatment programs in this country.
I can’t list all the updates in a single blog entry, but I’ll comment on those I find most interesting and relevant. If you want to read the entire SAMHSA document, you can get a free download at: http://store.samhsa.gov/product/PEP15-FEDGUIDEOTP

First of all, near the beginning of the document, it says the new guidelines reflect the responsibility that OTPs have to deliver “patient-centered, integrated, and recovery oriented standards of addiction treatment and medical care in general.”

I’ve long marveled at how, in the mental health and addiction treatment field, so many words can be used without saying much of anything. (I once heard the head of a federal government agency talk for forty-five minutes and say absolutely nothing. That is a gift.) Also, words and phrases in this field take on meaning beyond what those words traditionally mean. Innocent-looking phrases take on coded meanings.

For example, “recovery-oriented”…what does that mean? Part of what this phrase seems to mean is the same as what “harm reduction” meant in the past, except it became so controversial that we needed a new phrase.

Recovery-oriented means a patient’s recovery program may not look like what we’ve imagined in the past. Maybe the patient isn’t fully abstinent from all drugs, but if the patient is doing better than in the past, we accept that as a worthy accomplishment. Rather than black and white thinking of abstinence as the only recovery and any drug use as a full relapse failure, recovery-oriented approach means accepting any change for the better as a worthy goal.

I am fine with this. The field of medicine is harm-reduction. At least, that’s what it’s like in primary care. It may be different in surgery, where the diseased gall bladder can be cut out and the patient is permanently cured of gallstones. But much of primary care is all about keeping the patient as healthy and functional as possible, for the longest time possible, despite some non-compliance on the patient’s part. It makes sense to view the treatment of addiction in the same way.

Integrated: the bane of my existence…it means all people caring for the patient, plus the patient, TALK to one another. I’ve whined on this blog before about the difficulty of talking to my patient’s other doctors so I agree it’s a big problem but SAMHSA’s kind of preaching to the choir with that one.

It also means getting the patient’s family and/or friends involved if possible and if OK with the patient, along with other supports available in the community.

These new SAMHSA guidelines also tackled new technologies, like telemedicine.

Patients in remote locations can now communicate with care providers using new technology, sometimes called telemedicine, or e-therapy, or telehealth. This technology can make care more convenient for patients who live in remote areas, and encourage more participation in care by making it easier to access. These are worthy goals, but of course there are also risks.

Since Medicaid and Medicare services already has guidance for this type of care, the new OTP guidelines remind us of we have to do if we treat patients with Medicaid or Medicare… and want to get paid.

The new OTP guidelines make several points. They remind us that providers need to follow their own states’ laws around telemedicine, and to make sure transmissions of data during telemedicine are secure, relatively resistant to hacking. The guidelines also remind us telemedicine can’t expand a provider’s scope of practice (what the provider is allows to do, medically speaking), and that telemedicine can’t be used in situation where physical exam is necessary.

At first, I interpreted this to mean that admission to opioid treatment programs cannot be done by telemedicine, since a physical exam is required. But then I read this sentence: “…[telemedicine] may be used to support the decision making of a physician when a provider qualified to conduct physical examinations and make diagnoses is physically located with the patient.”

So can a physician assistant do the exam and relate finding to a physician who then can order the starting dose? I think that’s allowed by this sentence, at least by federal standards. State standards may vary, though.

This discussion naturally leads to another big expected change in the new guidelines. Many people working at OTPs expected these new guidelines to permit physician extenders like nurse practitioners and physician assistants to do admission history and physical exams for OTP patients, give induction orders, and do dose change orders.

This did not happen. Apparently, according to discussion at the AT Forum (http://atforum.com/2015/04/new-otp-accreditation-guidelines-will-not-allow-mid-levels/ ) SAMHSA’s lawyers put a halt to this, and said physician extenders could not do these things. The lawyers said that implementation regulations say “dosing and administration decisions shall be made by a program physician familiar with the most up-to-date product labeling.”

I have mixed feelings about allowing physician extenders, by which we mean nurse practitioners and physician assistants, to do admission orders. Often, patients presenting for OTP admission are complex, with both chronic pain and addiction issues, sometimes also with severe mental health disorders. I don’t think a new nurse practitioner graduate with little experience could do the job without a whole lot of special training. On the other hand, I know a physician assistant, working in the Addiction Medicine field for years, who is as good if not better than many doctors in the state. He’s competently been doing admissions and dose changes for years.

Thankfully, a sort of compromise has been proposed. Treatment programs can ask their state opioid treatment authority (SOTA) for an exemption from usual regulations, to allow a qualified physician extender to do admission orders and dose changes. Both the program’s medical director and program sponsor must give a clear reason why an extender is necessary to improve care. Then SOTA decides if allowing this particular physician extender enhances the care of patients at that treatment center.

For example, a program in a remote area may have problems finding physicians to work as many hours as the program needs. In that case, the medical director may know a physician extender who is experienced and mature, who could safely meet patients’ needs. That program could explain all of this to their SOTA and get an exemption, permission for the extender to do work ordinarily not allowed by state and federal regulations.

This seems like the best of both perspectives. Well-trained and competent physician extenders can get permission to do this work, while the state can withhold approval for an extender with little experience or training. Hopefully exemptions will be given for legitimate need, and not just because extenders are cheaper to hire than physicians.

Finally, I was pleased this version of the OTP guidelines frankly discusses the dangers of benzodiazepines: “…Benzodiazepines are highly associated with overdose fatalities when combined with opioids. Patients known to be using benzodiazepines even by prescription should be counselled as to their risk and provided with overdose prevention education and naloxone.” The guidelines go on to recommend providers consult IRETA’s best practices guidelines around how to manage the benzo issue without overreacting in either a too permissive or too restrictive manner.

Regular readers of my blog will recall I did several blog posts, in 1/26/14 and 2/2/14, about the IRETA guidelines when they were first published.

In the past, SAMHSA guidelines didn’t speak to the dangers of mixing benzos with MAT, leading some doctors to underestimate the dangers to MAT patients. In some areas, where benzos are prescribed appropriately, it’s not a big issue. However, in geographic areas (like the South) where benzos are commonly prescribed outside of accepted guidelines, it’s a huge problem. I often see patients prescribed benzos literally for years, despite guidelines which say benzodiazepine usefulness is limited to a few weeks to months. There’s no evidence benzodiazepines are of benefit past that, and mounting evidence indicates that they can be harmful (overdose, increased risk of falls and motor vehicle accidents, broken bones especially in the elderly, etc.)

I did find one sentence on naloxone, the medication that reduces opioid-overdose deaths, under the section on orientation to treatment. It says OTPs should provide patient education, including “Signs and symptoms of overdose, use of the naloxone antidote (prescriptions should be given to patients on entry into treatment), and when to seek emergency assistance.”
It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Use of prescription monitoring programs was mentioned repeatedly in these new guidelines. In 2007, when the last guidelines were published, many states didn’t have prescription monitoring programs. My state’s PMP was just becoming available in 2007, so it was a new and exciting tool.

Sections of the present SAMHSA guidelines strongly recommended the PMP be used upon admission to an opioid treatment program, and periodically during OTP treatment. The guidelines suggest the PMP be checked quarterly, which should be do-able.

I think SAMHSA’s new guidelines bravely addressed some of the problem areas of OTPs and gave some direction to programs about these issues. It’s not a perfect document, but it appears much thought and discussion was given to these issues.

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.”

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