Not Dying: A Worthy Goal

 

 

A new study about opioid overdose death and treatment of opioid use disorders was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this month. [1]

It showed that people who experience a non-fatal overdose have a significantly reduced risk of death if they start on medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine. Naltrexone was also examined but limited data prevented conclusions about the use of this medication.

This large cohort study, done in Massachusetts on adults age 18 and older, covered the four years from 2011 and 2015. Subjects were identified as people who experienced at least one non-fatal opioid overdose and survived at least for 30 days afterward. Patients were excluded if they had a diagnosis of cancer.

This turned out to be a huge study, with over seventeen thousand study subjects.

In the year prior to the overdose event, 26% had received at least one medication to treat opioid use disorder. Twenty-two percent received opioid detoxification at least once. Forty-one percent had received an opioid prescription in the preceding year, and 28% received a prescription for a benzodiazepine within the previous year.

For these same patient, in the year after their nonfatal overdose, 30% received at least one medication for opioid use disorder (13% got buprenorphine, 8% got methadone, and 4% got naltrexone. The other 5% received more than one medication.)

People younger than 45 were more likely to received treatment with medication, as were people with diagnoses of anxiety or depressive disorders.

In the year after overdose, 4.6 of the people with a prior non-fatal overdose died, and of those, 2.1% died from opioid-related causes.

For patients treated with medication for opioid use disorder, both the all-cause mortality and opioid mortality rates were significantly reduced; they were cut approximately in half.

Patients who started n methadone after their non-fatal overdose had markedly reduced risks for both all-cause mortality and opioid-related mortality, with the adjusted risk at around half what it was for untreated patients. Results for patients on buprenorphine were nearly the same; they had not quite the degree of risk reduction as with methadone, but still significantly lower risk of death than patients on no medications.

There were no associations between risk of death for patients started on naltrexone, but the authors noted this was a smaller group, so any differences weren’t statistically significant. Of note, most of those patients were only treated for a month or two.

So what does this study tell us?

We have another study that shows medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine reduces the risk of death, this time in people with at least one prior non-fatal opioid overdose. In this study, being methadone or buprenorphine reduced deaths from all-cause mortality, as well as opioid-related mortality.

We also see, again, that only a minority of people, 30%, with nonfatal overdose were started on life-saving medication.

I was surprised the percent of people referred for medication-assisted treatment was that high. This study was done in Massachusetts, a state that’s probably at the forefront of opioid use disorder treatment. They have some excellent providers and physician leaders, and better methods to pay for treatment in that state.

I don’t think rural areas in North Carolina come close to a 30% referral rate. I’d be amazed if 2-3% were referred for evidence-based treatment with medication. I suspect most people here who survive near-fatal opioid overdoses aren’t directed, referred, or even informed about medication-assisted treatments. People get referred to OTPs around here by concerned friends and family members, but rarely by physicians.

It has started to change. In our area, of the three OB/GYN groups, we have one practice that refers patients to us. The LME (local management entity, which contracts with the state to see people on Medicaid and those with no insurance) has referred less than a handful of people for treatment. That’s a dramatic improvement from seven years ago when the LME told patients to get off methadone.

But back to the study. So even in one of the most progressive states, only 30% of people got life-saving treatment.

Let’s picture a patient who has a near-fatal episode of a different chronic disorder. Thankfully, the patient survives this episode. There’s a treatment medication for this disorder that will reduce the patient’s risk of dying by half over the next year. What do you think would happen if this patient wasn’t given or referred for that life-saving treatment?

There would be an outcry. There would be wringing of hands and rending of garments, and possibly gnashing of teeth. There would be lawyers…malpractice lawyers, swarms of them.

Yet this exact situation happens over and over, again and again, in emergency departments across this nation.

To be fair, this article doesn’t say why the patients who survived a near-fatal overdose weren’t started on medication. Maybe emergency department personnel offered this medication but the patients refused.

Realistically, there are significant barriers to starting medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorder. Methadone can only lawfully be prescribed from a properly-licensed opioid treatment program. Maybe emergency department physicians gave referrals to OTPs, but the patients didn’t show up. Maybe they referred to office-based buprenorphine prescribers.

Every time I do an intake on a patient entering treatment with MAT, I ask if there’s been an overdose in their history. Much of the time, the answer if “Yes.” I then ask what kind of recommendation for treatment they got. Most times the patient looks at me blankly. They can’t think of any kind of treatment recommendation or referral. One patients said, “They told me to quit using drugs.”

Telling people to quit using drugs IS NOT treatment for opioid use disorder. It’s sad that I even have to write this, as it should be well-known by all medical personnel.

All of us working in this field need to keep chugging along. We need to put this article in our mental back pocket, ready to talk about if/when the time comes when we hear stale old beliefs about medication-assisted treatments.

This study points to the bottom line: “We are using medications that reduce the risk of dying by half, for people who have had a prior nonfatal overdose.” Not dying is a huge benefit of treatment, perhaps the ultimate benefit.

It is long past time for medical professionals to set aside their personal opinions and what they think they know, in favor of hard data. Methadone and buprenorphine reduce the risk of dying, and patients with opioid use disorder must be informed & encouraged about these treatments. To do otherwise is malpractice.

  1. Larochelle et al., “Medication for Opioid Use Disorder after Nonfatal Opioid Overdose and Association with Mortality: A Cohort Study,” Annals of Internal Medicine, June 19, 2018
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6 responses to this post.

  1. That absolutely appalls me that in 2018, with all the new info out on addiction & how to treat it, AND that finally it has been categorized for what it is: a Brain disease, a disease just like cancer, heart disease, ect- and to have anybody tell a client” JUST stop using drugs”?!!!- obviously they know NOTHING about the disease! And only show their supreme ignorance. Unbelievable! Have they been living under a rock? Apparently so. I truly hope the imbicule who said that is part of the minority in this country, or heaven help those with the disease.

    Reply

  2. Great article. If everyone got on board with this like Massachusetts has, many people would now be in recovery rather than experiencing a potential life threatening overdose! The Bridge Clinics in Massachusetts are working. My local ER’s are resistant to having anyone certified to start Suboxone in the ER. I am sitting here with 145 empty Suboxone spaces in the middle of an epidemic. How can this be?

    Reply

  3. Posted by jcbsw on June 25, 2018 at 6:41 pm

    I am curious about how this study was conducted and I do not have access to scholarly journals at the present (the thing I miss most about being a student!) Was this study a review of medical records or did they monitor the patients specifically for the study? Does the study note whether or not these patients were compliant on their medications or was this decrease in mortality attributed solely to the initial referral for MAT?

    Reply

    • It was a retrospective cohort study, of people who had at least one non-fatal opioid overdose. And no, the study didn’t look at compliance – they were counted as being on medication if they had any period of time when they were prescribed the medication.

      Reply

      • Posted by jcbsw on June 26, 2018 at 12:42 pm

        Thank you! This is really an impressive number then. I wonder what, if any, other conclusions might be drawn, or hypotheses given, from some of the data. Did more doctors prescribe as time went on? (I hope so). Were more patients seeking MAT? Did compliance increase among patients as time went on? I hope that a picture starts to be drawn that makes it clear that as more doctors offer, the more patients will accept; proactive doctors increase compliance and compliance lowers fatalities drastically. There is quite effective treatment available if the US would drop its puritanical idea of what it means to take a chemical.

  4. Posted by Alison Insinger on June 25, 2018 at 8:02 pm

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    Reply

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