What I Do With My Day

Dr. Cat


















Some of my friends and family still don’t understand what I do for a living. When I was working in primary care, they understood. Now that I work with patients with substance use disorders, they are unsure. I tell them I do the same thing I’ve always done: I take care of sick people.

“Yeah, but they’re not sick sick, right? Not like people who usually go to the doctor.”

“Um, sometimes they are.”

For them and anyone else who wonders what an addiction medicine doctor does all day, this blog entry is a summary of a recent workday at the opioid treatment program where I work.

This was a Wednesday, which I dedicate to established patients. On Wednesdays, I talk to patients who are established in treatment about numerous issues, including adequacy of their dose, other medical problems, new medications, and other things. I also do yearly history and physical exams on patients who have been with us for a while.

In the following, I have changed the patients’ characteristics to protect their identity, while still conveying the essence of our interaction.

My first patient has been with us for several years and has done very well. She was seeing me for her yearly exam. First, I asked about her if her dose was still working well for her, and she said yes. She has been on methadone 105mg for more than a year, and her drug screens have been positive only for only methadone and its metabolites, since shortly after her admission.

This is a nice quality of methadone. Most patients don’t develop a tolerance to the anti-withdrawal effects of their dose, allowing them to remain comfortable on the same dose for months or even years. Other patients have fluctuations in their dose requirements, for assorted reasons: changes in other medical problems, changes of other medications, or changes in activity level, to list a few.

My patient looked at her picture on our electronic record, taken at her intake nearly two years ago. “I hate that picture! It looks awful. Can I get a new picture?”

“Sure, just ask the receptionist or your counselor. You do look different now. You look like that person’s younger, happier sister. But maybe it’s good to keep that old picture, at least in your mind, to remind you what opioid use disorder took from you – your joy.”

We proceeded with her history and physical, and at the end, I told her I thought her biggest health issue was smoking cigarettes. She was now abstinent from illicit drugs for nearly two years, but was still smoking nearly a pack and a half per day. I asked her if she had considered trying to quit. She said she would like to quit but wasn’t yet ready to try. I told her I thought she could quit, because she was doing so well in her recovery already. I asked her if it would be OK for me to ask her about smoking cessation in the future, and she said yes.

It’s important to hit the right tone with patients on this issue. I don’t want to pressure her and demand she try to stop smoking right now, because – of course – that approach doesn’t usually lead to behavioral change. Instead, I wanted her to think about why quitting smoking would be best for her, and to support her efforts in any way I can.

I can’t ignore the smoking issue. Tobacco-related illnesses are one of the most frequent killers of people in recovery, and I would not be doing my job if I ignored such an essential health issue. I like my patients, and I don’t want them to suffer illness and disability from a preventable condition, especially since their lives have changed so dramatically already.

My next three patients all wanted dose increases. Two were on methadone, and both were on sub-therapeutic doses, as evidenced by late-day withdrawal symptoms. I examined both before they dosed, so I could see them when their symptoms were at their worst. Both had large pupils and sweaty hands, and I ordered dose increases for both.

The third patient was a little trickier. He was dosing on buprenorphine at 16mg, and said he felt withdrawal symptoms of sweating with muscle aches and runny nose, which started at around 1pm each day. Since he doses at around six-thirty in the morning, his withdrawal symptoms started around six hours after dosing.

I didn’t think increasing above 16mg would cover the patient for a full twenty-four hours. I talked to the patient about switching to methadone, since unlike buprenorphine, there’s no ceiling on its opioid effect. As a full opioid, the more you take, the more withdrawal blocking effect.

He was reluctant to switch. He said he heard bad things about methadone, about how it gets in your bones and rots your teeth, and he didn’t want that to happen.

Inwardly, I sighed. Such ideas are still all too common in this region of the country. There’s still more stigma against methadone than against buprenorphine. While I’d love it if all my patients felt normal while dosing with buprenorphine, that’s not the case. There will never be one medication that’s right for everyone, and methadone is a life-saving medication too.

I corrected his mistaken impressions about methadone, without downplaying the real risks of methadone. I told him it was easy to overdose on methadone if he used benzodiazepine or alcohol while on it. I acknowledged that methadone does appear to be more difficult for most people to taper off of, but since he was early in treatment, we weren’t anywhere near close to considering any kind of taper.

He agreed to the switch, and I wrote an order to stop buprenorphine and start methadone. When patients switch from buprenorphine to methadone, I usually start methadone at a lower dose, at around 20-25mg on the first day. If they are older, on many medications, or have serious medical conditions, I may need to start lower than 20mg on the first day. I planned to see him again in a few weeks to see how he was doing.

My next patient had been admitted to the hospital for exacerbation of COPD, and the day I saw her was her first day back at our OTP. She usually doses on methadone at 80mg per day. The hospital didn’t call to confirm her dose with us, so I was very worried that she had gone without methadone for the five days she was in the hospital, on top of the COPD exacerbation.

When I (finally) got her records, I saw she was dosed at 80mg per day, because that’s what she told them she was taking.

I’m glad they dosed her. But it seems to me they should confirm that with her treatment facility before dosing her at that amount. Nearly all our patients will tell their other physicians the truth, but what if the patient, in a misguided attempt to feel better, exaggerated her dose and said she was on 110mg per day?

What if this patient wasn’t even currently in our treatment program? Dosing a patient at 80mg per day who wasn’t already on methadone at that dose would be deadly. When the stakes are that high, why take that risk? I know our phone system has byzantine voicemail, but the 24-hour number is given at the beginning of the voicemail, so they should be able to reach an administrator at any time, who can get all needed information for them.

Anyway, my patient was feeling better, and had no gap in treatment since she’d been dosed while in the hospital. I made note of some new medications and applauded that she had five days without cigarettes and encouraged her to continue the nicotine patches she’d been started on.

I had asked to see my next patient for an odd reason: we got a call that this lady was injecting her methadone dose each day. The caller remained anonymous, which always makes me suspicious of the caller’s motives, but I felt I needed to check it out anyway.

It’s rare for anyone to inject methadone. For one thing, methadone has a high oral bioavailability, due to excellent oral absorption. With methadone, you can get around 90% of an intravenous dose just by swallowing that dose. But injection drug use is about more than just the physiology. Often there’s a psychological component. Patients accustomed to injecting drugs can get a rush of dopamine just with the ritual of injecting.

I didn’t think this patient I was seeing would be doing that, since she’d been in treatment for over a year. All of her urine drug screens were positive only for the expected methadone and its metabolites.

When I saw her, I told her we received reports that she was injecting her methadone, and that I was sorry to inconvenience her, but I needed to check for myself, for safety reasons. To my great surprise, I found track marks. I asked her about what caused the marks, and she denied any IV drug use of her methadone or anything else, but there was no mistaking what I was looking at.

I told her I was afraid to give her further take-home doses, and that she needed to dose with us on site from now on.

She was furious, and while I understood her anger, I was in a pickle. There was no way I was could give her take home doses, given what I saw. It wasn’t safe. Her explanations of how the tracks came to be there didn’t sound realistic at all (cat scratched her in the same place multiple times, repeated injury from a fishing hook in the same area multiple times). I tried to be frank with her, and told her I knew tracks when I saw them.

Some physicians might not be so confident. Early on in my career as a physician treating opioid use disorders, I might have been a little unsure. After seventeen years of doing this job, I know track marks when I see them.

She asked when she could get her take home levels back, and again I was stumped. How could I ever be confident this patient wouldn’t inject take home medication? I could keep a check on her arms, but of course she could use other sites, and do I really want to have to ask a patient to strip so I can be sure there’s no injection drug use? No, I’m not going to do that.

If I knew what happened, it would give us something to work with, but my patient was unwilling or unable to tell me, so she will have to dose with us daily.

The rest of the day continued like this, with patients asking for dose increases, some asking for recommendations about how to go about decreasing their dose, and others checking in because they were medically fragile. I like to see patients with significant medical issues every three to four months, so I can stay current about any new medications, and remain updated on the status of their other medical issues.

This is what I do during my work day. I love my job and feel like I can help people and make a difference in their lives. I’m better able to do that where I work now than I ever could during the years I worked in primary care.

I’ve got the best job in the world.


10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sparky on September 30, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    Agreeee,you do have the best job in the world,you are saving lives in a roundabout way,wish you were in my area of Kentucky


  2. Dr. Burson I was having a similar struggle at 16 mg of Suboxone. Still feeling the symptoms about 1-2PM. The doctor increased me to 24 mg and I have been very stable on that dose, for many years. I’m older and have other health issues (cardiac and PPH) and take quite a few other medications.

    I’m kind of a veteran of Suboxone, having been on it as long as it’s been in the U.S.. Before that, methadone and LAAM. To me, those were the bad old days. I never went above 80 mg, and usually closer to 60. But methadone was very sedating to me no matter how low my dose was, and I had trouble driving because I would not be sure I wouldn’t “nod off” between Sonoma and Santa Rosa to get to the clinic or to go about my daily life. My entire family was upset about my ability to fall asleep standing up and if I sat down in any chair I was down for the count, no question. I look back on that time with sadness as my children were still fairly young and I missed a lot—they didn’t get a lot they could have had I been on Suboxone but it was not yet available.

    My transition to Suboxone was not smooth at all—I was given it too early and ended up with “precipitated withdrawals.” But was then given subutex for a bit then transitioned. I’ve been awake mostly when I’m supposed to be since. And functional. Going to school and everything. And finishing what I start. This would never have happened on methadone for me in particular or without Suboxone for me in particular.

    I had to tell you so you would know.


    • Thanks for writing with your experience. You illustrate beautifully why one medication won’t work for everyone. At least we have three now (2 agonists, one antagonist)


  3. Dr Burson, I have often been able to reconcile this in my brain by saying Dr’s address, through a variety of learned and developed tools, dis-ease.
    I just wish to tell you that after following and reading the majority of your blogs, I can safely and objectively say that, or make the case, you and your practices, the sum of your passion, are a needed weapon against this dis-ease as we apprehend and comprehend the chaotic nature of it.
    What we confront on a daily basis, seems materialistic in its scientific/philosophical sense. However, the problem is often a problem of survival, abuse, dysfunction and is a complicated problem (that which many do not understand), often not having (or we are not able to apply) a pragmatic, materialistic or scientific solution. Many have not had this inhabit their world, and this can seem both frightening and compelling, simultaneously for both the uninformed as well as the informed.
    I have known many Dr’s in this field and can say that along with a few others, NC is blessed to have you..and your words.
    Shawn E. Gross, CSAC, PSS.


  4. Posted by Alan Wartenberg MD on October 2, 2018 at 12:25 am

    I would only add that while methadone has excellent bioavailability and is well absorbed, there is about a 50% hepatic first pass. This is why methadone, when given parenterally, is given in doses about 1/2 the oral dose, ideally in split doses. Jana’s discussion of her patients makes me a little (but only a little) nostalgic about my active clinical days, with a tiny regret that I have retired. But that passes.


  5. Posted by LOVETREE on October 23, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    Hi. I’m a doc at an otp. I have a question for the expert. I have 2 pts on 85 mg MTD. They each test positive for opiates when urine tested. They admit that they still use opiates recreationally, and they are happy with 85 mg. I have offered to increase their dose to quell cravings. They will NOT increase. They want to stay at the same dose in order to SAFELY use opiates at home. If I cut them off completely they will surely relapse and go back to a lifestyle of daily abuse. If I allow them to continue on 85 mg they will continue to abuse opiates occasionally. What should I do? They refuse to increase their methadone dose.


    • Yes I also have patients who want to take a small dose of methadone, enough to prevent the worst withdrawal without eliminating all of the euphoria of illicit opioids.
      In the past, I would have insisted the patient go up on the dose or leave treatment.
      With time, I’ve been more accepting of a harm reduction approach. In other words, I’d want to know if this patient is using opioids less often than prior to being on methadone, if the patient is using IV, etc. If you decide a sub-therapeutic dose of methadone is at least reducing harm to the patient, make sure you document all of it in the patient’s chart and proceed as you are.
      Because often the people who come to inspect us from the many state agencies have strong feelings about continued drug use by patients, and you don’t want to get cited for ignoring a patient still using opioids.


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