Archive for August, 2014

Opioids and Benzodiazepines Prescribed More Frequently in the South

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Last month, the CDC released information comparing rates of opioid and benzodiazepine prescriptions by state and by region. It did not surprise me to learn the South had the highest rates of benzodiazepine and opioid prescribing of the entire nation.

U.S. citizens already receive twice the number of pain pills per capita than our Canadian neighbors. But in addition to that difference, there’s a 2.7-fold difference between the state with the lowest opioid prescribing rate per capita (Hawaii) and the states with the highest rate per capita (Tennessee and Alabama tied for first place). [1]

The same held true for benzodiazepines, with even more difference in prescribing rates. In Hawaii, doctors prescribed benzodiazepines 19.3 times for every 100 people. But in Tennessee, doctors prescribed benzodiazepines 61.4 times for every 100 people. That’s over a three-fold difference between these states.

Alabama, Tennessee, and West Virginia were the top three prescribers for both opioid and benzodiazepines. We already know that higher prescribing rates are associated with higher overdose deaths rates from these medications. Incredibly, these three states were more than two standard deviations away from mean prescribing rates for the entire country.

Even more disturbing, Tennessee doctors prescribed oxymorphone (Opana) at an amount 22 times that of doctors in Minnesota.

That’s just bizarre. It could also explain why so many of the patients I admit to OTPs in the mountains of North Carolina mention Opana as their drug of choice.

The CDC authors of this report admit it’s unlikely there’s much difference in rates of disorders needing treatment with opioids or benzodiazepines. My interpretation of this statement is that it’s an indirect way of saying doctors in the South are overprescribing opioids and benzodiazepines. The authors allude to the problem of overprescribing in the South, mentioning that the South also has higher rates of prescribing for antibiotics, stimulants in children, and medications known to be high risk for the elderly.

How did my state of North Carolina compare to the rest of the nation? Our data isn’t as embarrassing as that for Tennessee, but there’s certainly room for improvement. In NC, doctors prescribed around 97 opioid prescriptions per 100 people, and 45 benzo prescriptions per 100 people.

Benzodiazepine co-addiction complicates induction onto methadone and buprenorphine done by opioid treatment programs for the treatment of opioid addiction, and this co-addiction also predicts poorer treatment outcomes. [2, 3]

This supports what I’ve long suspected: the treatment of opioid addicts with MAT is different in the South than in the West. My colleagues in California, inferring from the CDC’s report, don’t have to deal with benzodiazepine co-addiction as often as I do in the mountains of North Carolina. That co-occurring addiction changes the clinical picture, and makes induction onto methadone particularly more risky.

This is not the South’s finest hour. We must do more to educate doctors about appropriate prescribing, starting in medical school and continuing throughout the physicians’ professional careers. If doctors don’t start this change, someone else will surely do it for us.

1. http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/opioid-prescribing/index.html
2. Brands et al, 2008, Journal of Addictive Disease
3. Eiroa-orosa et al, 2010, Drug and Alcohol Dependence

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Opioid Physical Dependence versus Opioid Addiction: What’s the Difference?

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Many people, including doctors, are confused about the difference between physical opioid dependence and opioid addiction. To further complicate the issue, in the past, psychiatrists used the word “dependence” interchangeably with addiction.

They are not the same.

By physical dependence, I am referring to normal changes human bodies makes when exposed to opioids for longer than several weeks to months.

Our bodies like to keep things level. When we ingest opioids for more than a few days, our bodies compensate, and make changes to help minimize the effects of opioids. Over time, it will take more opioid to have the same effect, which is called tolerance. Then if opioids are suddenly stopped for any reason, we experience a backlash in the other direction, due to the body’s adaptations. We will feel physical withdrawal signs and symptoms: increased heart rate and blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating and chills, goose bumps on our skin, muscle and joint pains, anxiety and insomnia. This happens to human bodies when exposed to opioids for long enough, and then stopped suddenly.

The presence of physical withdrawal symptoms alone is NOT the same thing as opioid addiction.

For addiction to exist, the person taking opioids must have psychological manifestations. Such a person suffers from the obsession and compulsion to use more opioids, even knowing bad things happen with opioid use. A person with addiction neglects other important parts of life in order to focus on the use of opioids. She may use the drug in ways it’s not meant to be use – injecting, snorting, or chewing for faster onset. She may start using opioids to treat negative emotion, and mix them with other drugs for different effects. She may use opioids even when not in pain, for the effect the drug has on her.

Having the brain of an addict is like having a car with the gas pedal stuck all the way down. An addicted brain may be able to see sharp curves ahead, and even recognize that slowing down would be prudent, but still feels powerless to do so.

It’s often a scary ride.

A person with only physical dependence may feel bad if she stops opioids too quickly, but she would be able to taper if done slowly enough, because the mental obsession to keep using more isn’t driving the drug use. She may feel physical pain return as the opioid is tapered, and may have to slow the reduction in dose, but that’s a different issue.

So we see it’s possible to have physical dependence to opioids without actual addiction.

It’s also possible to have addiction to opioids without physical dependence.

For example, if you put an opioid-using addict in jail, she will undergo physical withdrawal. By the time she’s released, she may longer have the physical dependence (Though many opioid addicts have a post-acute opioid withdrawal that can last for days, weeks and even months. These people’s bodies may have lost the ability to manufacture endorphins, our bodies’ natural opioids.). But if nothing has been done to treat her real problem, the obsession and compulsion to use opioids will return, and she will relapse.

Too many family members of addicts, cops, judges, and even doctors have the false expectation that physical detoxification from opioids is the same thing as treatment. Often the addict is judged harshly for failing at treatment, when the addict wasn’t even given effective treatment. Because detox alone is not treatment.

Opioid addiction is treated with talk therapy, consisting of motivational enhancement counseling, cognitive/behavioral counseling, 12-step facilitation counseling, or a mixture of counseling techniques.

Success rates are markedly improved when medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine, naltrexone, or methadone is added to counseling.

I’m writing this blog after a visit from a new patient at my office. This nice lady had been accused of being a drug addict by her doctor. She’s been on the same dose of opioids for the last three years, never runs out early, doesn’t misuse her medication, and has urine drug screens that show only the medications he prescribes. At her visit with me, she denied shooting, snorting, or chewing her medication for faster onset. She’s never obtained opioids from friends or acquaintances, and doesn’t use any other drugs including alcohol.

Yet she told me that for some reason, her doctor made the comment to her, “If I didn’t prescribe these pills for you, you’d be buying them off the street.” She was appropriately offended, but also worried she might have addiction. She tried to stop her opioids suddenly, but got sick. She took this as evidence she was addicted, so she came to see me for an evaluation.

I assume she’s telling me the truth, because why else would she waste time and money coming to see me? She has no evidence of addiction that I can detect.

I recommended she go back to her doctor, and ask him to taper her dose down, slowly. This should be a gradual process, so that she doesn’t have withdrawal that interferes with her life. Usually, a 15% drop every two to four weeks is a good rate of decrease. I told her that if she develops addiction, I’d be happy to see her again, but for now, she doesn’t need my services. She does need to communicate her desires to taper with her existing doctor.

Drug Testing

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Every so often one of my established office-based buprenorphine (Suboxone) patients gets a little rebellious about being asked to take drug tests. They feel since they’ve been doing so well for so long, they no longer need urine drug tests. They say things like, “Don’t you trust me by now?” But it’s not about them or their character. It’s about the disease of addiction. I tell them some abbreviated form of the following:
• Patients in treatment don’t always tell me when they’ve relapsed. In order for addiction to thrive, lies must be told. Otherwise honest people sometimes tell outrageous lies while they are in the throes of addiction. I see this as part of the disease. It’s not about them. It’s not about me. It’s the addiction.
• It’s good medical practice. Like many chronic illnesses, relapses happen. It’s better to detect these as early as possible, to discuss what happened, and if/how we need to change their treatment. If a patient has relapsed to opioids, it may mean that I need to increase the dose of buprenorphine, if they were still able to feel an opioid high. If the relapse was to other drugs, it usually means we need to increase the “dose” of addiction counseling.
• There’s a gold mine of information in relapses. I ask my patient what happened immediately before the relapse. Was she around people who were using drugs? Did she use drugs to try to get rid of an unpleasant emotion? Did she use drugs because she became complacent? The answers can help decide how best to avoid relapses in the future. If a patient is fortunate enough to live through a relapse, she can get information she can’t get any other way.
• Drug screening benefits the patient by giving them accountability. Some patients are less likely to relapse with accountability. I’ve had patients say that the thought of having to talk about a relapse is enough to keep them from using drugs. This surprised me, but I’m glad.
• Drug screening also shows them I’m serious about their recovery. I’m not just going through the motions of writing a prescription and getting paid for the visit. I really want my patients to recover and get their lives back.
• I’m not a human lie detector. In the past, I smugly thought I could tell if someone had relapsed, so drug screens just confirmed what I already knew. After more experience, I know that’s not true.
• It’s the standard of care. Even if the other reasons aren’t compelling enough to do drug screens, the vaguely increased regulatory oversight of doctors who prescribe buprenorphine should induce them do drug screens. I know if my charts are ever audited by the DEA, my state’s department of health and human services, or my state’s medical board, I can show I’m doing things in the proper manner.
• I don’t want to prescribe medications that will be diverted to the black market. Some doctors say, with some justification, that buprenorphine is a safer drug than most other illicit opioids, and we should look at black market diversion of buprenorphine as a form of harm reduction. However, governmental types don’t see things that way. The DEA certainly doesn’t. I don’t want to prescribe buprenorphine to people with the criminal intent of selling part or all of it. When I do urine drug screening, if there’s no buprenorphine present, that’s a serious matter. If the patient isn’t using what I prescribe, it’s likely they are selling it. Since such diversion of buprenorphine endangers the whole program, it’s essential to stop prescribing for people who sell their medication.

These are my reasons for drug screening. Since I’m not going to stop doing them, addicts who refuse drug testing have to find new doctors. New opioid addicts who come to my office are told, both verbally and in writing, that I do drug screening. They can make their own decision about whether they want to see me as their doctor or go elsewhere. Most established patients comply with requests for testing after I explain the above reasons.

Revoking Methadone Take home Doses

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My decisions to revoke take home doses provoke more anger and outrage from my patients than anything else I do. This is a sensitive issue.

To understand their fury at losing take home doses, I need to describe how hard it is to get those take homes in the first place. Patients don’t waltz into treatment and get take home doses right away.

For patients on methadone at opioid treatment programs, (OTPs), eight criteria must be met before the patient can get any take home doses.
1. Time in treatment
2. Urine drug screens negative for illicit drugs and alcohol
3. Ability to store medication safely
4. Stable home environment, stable social relationships
5. No recent criminal activities
6. Regular clinic attendance – doesn’t frequently miss days
7. No behavioral problems at the opioid treatment program
8. Rehabilitative benefits of take homes outweigh the risk of take homes

Of all the requirements, time in treatment limits patients the most. Many patients do very well right from the start, with no drug use, criminal activity or any other complications. Even so, they must come every day the program is open (often 7 days per week) for a minimum of three months. After that, they can be granted two additional take home doses per week, as long as all of the other seven criteria are met. After three more months, they get one more take home per week, and so on. Once they get to the take home level where they come only once per week, they have to be compliant and in good recovery for at least one year before being allowed to get take homes every two weeks.

Patients expend time, money, and effort to get these take home doses.

That’s for methadone. For buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex, Zubsolv, etc.) there is no federal requirement saying how long a patient has to be in treatment to get a take home dose. So long as buprenorphine patients meet the other seven criteria, they can get take homes from the start, as far as the federal standard is concerned. However, state requirements may be stricter than federal requirements. For example, my state didn’t drop the time in treatment criteria for patients in opioid treatment programs on buprenorphine, but is willing to grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis, as long as the request is reasonable.

Most patients manage their take home doses perfectly. This fact gets lost in the hoopla over the few patients who don’t take their take home medication as prescribed. The actions of a few rogue patients, when made public, taint the reputations of all our patients. Their actions unfairly perpetuate stigma and bias against medication assisted treatment.

At any given time, you can google “methadone overdose on take home” or something similar and read news stories about patients who sold or gave their dose to someone who died as a result. It makes big splashy headlines and causes people in the community to wring their hands and lambaste opioid treatment programs for allowing people to get take home doses at all. In reality, many more people have died from methadone diverted from pain medicine clinics.

Part of my job as an OTP medical director is to decide, with the help and input of all staff, when a patient is taking the medication I prescribe as I prescribe it, and when it’s being misused.

Now obviously most people won’t tell OTP staff if they plan to misuse their medication, or divert it to someone for whom it was not intended, so OTPs have to have ways to assure patient compliance. One of those ways is called a “bottle recall.”

In a bottle recall, a staff person, usually the patient’s counselor, calls the patient at the given contact number and asks them to return to the facility within 24 hours so we can see that they have all their bottles and that bottles to be taken later in the week are still sealed and full of medication.

Yes, there are ways to falsify bottle recalls. In the past, patients would pull the plastic bottles apart at the seams, remove the methadone, fill the bottle with red Kool-Aid or similar, and glue the bottles back together. Some patients’ efforts were easily detected, and some do a slick job.

Now that we have pressurized seals on the take home bottles, we think it’s more difficult to get into the bottle without being detected, but some clever patient will invent a way to thwart the pressure seals…or already has done so.

If the patient fails a bottle recall, we must eliminate all take homes, at least temporarily. Sometimes patients don’t give us a working phone number, sometimes they say they never got the call, they just dropped their phone in a mud puddle and it wasn’t working, they got the message but forgot to return to the clinic, they just went out of town and only got the message when they got back, are out of town and can’t make it back for a bottle recall…we hear many reasons for a failed recall. Many are legitimate, and it’s nearly impossible to sort reality from lies.

According to patients, take home medication has been lost, stolen, left in hotel rooms, spilled in the sink, run over by cars, eaten by family pets, black bears, and other animals, burnt up house fires, and dumped out by angry spouses and highway patrolmen. In one creative story, the patient said a tree fell on her house during a storm. The great wind that felled the tree also created a sort of vacuum in her house, and a whirlwind sucked her medication bottle up, up into the sky as she watched helplessly.

Another patient said he couldn’t come in for a bottle recall because he buried his bottles in the back yard and forgot where he buried them, because he had Alzheimer’s dementia. Of course, I asked why he buried them, and he said, “So my wife wouldn’t get into them.” No, he didn’t get any more take homes.

Of course weird things can actually happen, and that’s the problem. What should I do if a patient who appears stable and who appears to be doing well, reports loss of medication? It’s a judgment call. With the help of the rest of the staff, we discuss the past stability of the patient and the believability of the report. We can’t look into the hearts of all our patients and tell who has criminal intent and who doesn’t. People can’t be perfectly assessed. I do the best I can, and with the help of the rest of the staff, make judgment calls about take home doses.

As the prescribing physician, I have a responsibility to make sure every patient who gets a take home stores it safely and takes it as directed. If a patient is unable or unwilling to do this, I have to revoke their take homes, at least for some period of time, especially if there’s evidence my patient is selling or giving away their medication.

Diversion of take home doses to someone other than the patient for whom it was prescribed is always a concern at opioid treatment programs. But we don’t want to limit freedoms for patients doing well because of the illegal activities of other patients. As with so many things relating to human behavior, it’s an issue of balance. I admit we don’t always get it right.

Some anti-methadone activists would like to change the law, and force patients on medication-assisted treatment to come daily for their doses, and eliminate take home doses. That would reduce the problem of diversion, but cause a bigger problem. It would disrupt the lives of thousands of MAT patients who take their medication as prescribed as they go about their life.

In the other extreme, some pro-MAT people say patients should be allowed to be prescribed methadone and buprenorphine a month at a time, just like medication for other chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure. But the medications I prescribe, methadone and buprenorphine, have street value, and can cause euphoria in people unaccustomed to taking opioids. Therefore, because of the properties of these medications, sound medical practice tells us we have to have some safeguards in place to detect medication misused and diversion.