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Cutting Edge Addiction Medicine Information

 

 

 

The last issue of Journal of Addiction Medicine, the official journal of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), was full of interesting articles, and I plan to blog about some of them in upcoming entries.

I’m pleased to be a member of ASAM, recognized as the premier professional society dealing with substance use disorders and their treatments. This organization has members with great enthusiasm, and hosts the best conferences I’ve ever attended in my career as a physician. The journal ASAM publishes is also top-notch. They publish articles pertinent to issues addiction medicine physicians face daily. They are practical for my everyday use.

Today I’m blogging about their drug testing recommendations.

Recently there’s been an upsurge of laboratories offering fantastic deals to physicians and patients which in the long run may turn out to be not so fantastic. ASAM published a document giving evidence for the most appropriate way to use drug testing in the setting of addiction medicine practices.

This document underwent extensive evaluation by experts in the field, using a data search for the highest quality of evidence, and then, using the RAND/UCLA appropriateness method, decided the importance of all of the data gleaned. Then an expert panel judged the ratings of all statements concerning drug tests. IRETA (Institute for Research, Education and Training in the Addictions), the prestigious group in Pennsylvania, also contributed to the document.

ASAM mailed a copy of the entire document, titled, “The Appropriate Use of Drug Testing in Clinical Addiction Medicine,” along with the latest issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

I recommend every physician working with patients with substance use disorder read this document and use its information. The document isn’t meant for federally mandated workplace forensic testing, only for addition medicine practice.

In this blog, I’m going to point out a few of the ideas in the document and comment on them.

The ASAM document points out that drug testing technology is useful only when the technology is used appropriately. This reminds providers that we must understand the underlying principles of drug testing, know the limits of this technology, and remember it’s only one tool in our toolbox of patient evaluation.

They remind us that there’s only limited evidence to show that drug testing improves patient outcomes. More recent studies suggested that when drug testing is used correctly and integrated into making treatment decisions, outcomes may be improved.

Physicians shouldn’t use drug tests in a punitive, confrontational way. Rather, if we get an unexpected result on a drug test, it should be the beginning of a conversation with our patient about the result, not the end of treatment for the patient.

Some patient advocates point out that if patients have no adverse consequences for positive drug screens, self-report of drug use would be sufficient. That’s probably true, but if a patient continues to use drugs while in treatment, a change in treatment may be needed. Patients view intensification of counseling as an adverse consequence, so there we have a dilemma. As a physician, I may feel that positive urine drug screens indicate a need for more intensive treatment, but my patient doesn’t want that, and feels that I’m being punitive for insisting on more intense treatment.

That’s not unique to addiction medicine. In primary care, I often recommended patients participate in more intense treatment for a chronic disease. Sometimes they felt like I was making a fuss about nothing.

For example, I had a patient with extremely high blood pressure. He ran 220/130 on a regular basis, and refused hospitalization saying, “That’s normal for me. That’s just what my blood pressure runs.” OK, maybe that’s true, but it’s still dangerously high. When my patient refused to take a second medication for blood pressure, refused to get necessary lab tests done, and missed follow up appointments, I had to decide whether to continue to see him as a patient or dismiss him for non-compliance. He was a time bomb, at high risk for a stroke or heart attack. If I kept seeing him, maybe I could gradually convince him to take more blood pressure medicine. By continuing to prescribe blood pressure medication, I was doing something to reduce the possible harm to him. But if he had a large stroke and died under my care, am I partly liable because I kept seeing him despite his non-compliance?

I eventually decided I couldn’t keep seeing him since I was more worried about his health than he was. He did view my dismissal of him as a patient as punitive. I guess it was, in a way, yet I hoped he’d find a doctor better able to convince him to take care of his disease.

Drug testing should be therapeutic. This means that that the drug test should be used as a tool, but not a club. A positive test can serve as a starting point for a discussion about denial, motivation, and about the actual substances used. A positive test can become a starting point that leads to helping patients understand some of their triggers for use.

For example, when I talk to a patient about an unexpected drug test, I say something along the line of, “Tell me about the cocaine (or whatever drug).” I want my patient to talk through how the drug use occurred, especially about what was going on just before they decided to use the drug. Who were they with, what were they doing, what was their mood and attitude like, how was their stress level…all of these things can lead to helpful information. Often, before the actual drug use, there’s a sequence of events leading up to the use. I tell patients that relapses often contain valuable information they can use in the future, and since they didn’t die from the relapse, they should mine the experience for all data that can be helpful in the future.

This should be a collaborative process, assuming the patient sees the drug use as change-worthy behavior. If the patient sees no problem with using a drug, a completely different approach is needed, because you’re trying to sell a dog to someone who prefers cats.

ASAM’s document us that the intent of the test is to discover whether a substance has been used within a particular window of time.

That would seem obvious, but sometimes providers expect the test to tell them more than that, or less than that. For example, if a patient sample tells us whether a substance has been used over the past 4-5 days, it will not tell us if the patient is impaired or under the influence of that substance at one particular time over the past 4-5 days.

A test can’t give us information outside of the test’s expected window of detection. That should be obvious, but it bears repeating, because some providers can get confused.

For example, a non-medical acquaintance who claimed to be an expert in toxicology recently told me his organization planned to use hair testing for buprenorphine patients. That made no sense to me. The window of detection for hair is great for weeks to months, depending on the length of the hair sample, but it won’t tell me if my patient has used drugs over the past few days or week. That data won’t be part of the hair follicle record until more than a week from now. I would regard that as stale data, not as helpful to me clinically.

The ASAM document agrees, saying that hair drug testing is not appropriate for most addiction medicine treatment settings. Also, I would add that it’s costly, not timely, and possibly discriminatory, since dark hair concentrates drugs more than pale hair.

The ASAM document made a few points I had not considered. One would expect that any patient in treatment for substance use disorder would know what her urine drug screen would show. That’s not always the case. For example, with heroin, the person using the drug may have no idea that it’s been mixed with fentanyl, a much more powerful opioid that heroin. That’s a common practice now, since drug cartels have discovered it’s cheaper to make fentanyl than harvest opium and process it into heroin.

That’s some valuable information for a patient who thinks he’s using heroin. If fentanyl, a much more powerful opioid than heroin, is contained in the product he’s using, he may be more likely to do “tester” shots to avoid overdose.

I’ve had patients who use marijuana suddenly test positive for both THC and methamphetamine. Was the marijuana mixed with methamphetamine? If the patient knows for sure she hadn’t intentionally used methamphetamine, it must have been mixed with the marijuana, possibly to give the user a different effect. This gives this person information about the contents of the drug she’s buying, which can be useful information for her.

Of course, when patients use pharmaceutical-grade drugs like oxymorphone, oxycodone, and the like, users know what they are getting. Obviously that different with street drugs.

This guide about drug testing also reminds us that drug tests can help physicians decide if mental health symptoms can be due to mental illness or drug use. For example, patients who have used methamphetamine often have psychotic symptoms. They can be paranoid and have visual and auditory hallucinations.

In the past, when I’ve seen patients with these findings, I’m often relieved to find methamphetamine on their drug screens, because there’s a good chance the clinical signs are all drug-induced, and not a devastating mental disorder like schizophrenia.

These are only a few of the helpful, more big-picture ideas in the ASAM document. I’d like to encourage any physician or provider treating substance use disorder to get and read a copy of the document.

New Treatment for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The June 15, 2017 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine contained an article of great interest. Written by Kraft et al., this article titled, “Buprenorphine for the Treatment of the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome,” described a study comparing buprenorphine with morphine solution to treat opioid withdrawal in the newborn. This study showed significantly shorter duration of treatment and shorter median length of hospitalization for babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome when treated with sublingual buprenorphine compared to traditional treatment with morphine oral solution.

This study covers a hot topic. Many people are alarmed at the rising rate of NAS in our nation’s hospitals. The incidence of NAS has risen four-fold from 2003 to 2012, and cost $316 million in care for those babies just in 2012. [1] Any new treatment that can reduce the duration of withdrawal in newborns, and thus reduce treatment costs and parental anxiety, is an exciting new development.

The NEJM study described was done at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with subjects enrolled from late 2011 until mid-2016. To qualify for the study, the babies had to be born full-term, defined as more than 37 weeks of gestation, and had to have been exposed to opioids during the pregnancy. The infants had to have signs and symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), and parental consent to participate in the study.

The study, abbreviated BBORN, for “blinded buprenorphine or neonatal morphine solution,” excluded babies with low birth weight, exposure to benzodiazepines within 30 days of delivery, or serious other medical conditions. For the first part of patient enrollment, breast fed babies were excluded, but this restriction was lifted by 2013, with the national trend of that encouraged these mothers to breast feed. Nearly all of the mothers were on methadone maintenance, with doses ranging from 25 to 265 in the group assigned to buprenorphine treatment, and 30-260 in the group assigned to morphine oral solution, regarded as treatment as usual.

The design of this study was very strong, since it was doubly blinded, which means the providers caring for these infants didn’t know which were randomized to buprenorphine and which were randomized to morphine.

This double-blind approach is important in general, but especially important when dealing with the evaluation of babies in withdrawal. Sometimes nurses and other medical professionals who are evaluating withdrawal in babies have an emotional reactions. Some of these people can overestimate the degree of withdrawal, leading to longer hospitalization and over-medication.

If you are wondering “How do they get the babies to keep the medication under their tongue?” I wondered the same thing. The study explained that after getting a buprenorphine dose (or placebo, if their active drug was morphine solution), the babies were given a pacifier to extend the time the medication is in contact with the sublingual mucosa.

How clever. When my cat Yoshi was prescribed buprenorphine for urethritis, I had to dose him with buprenorphine, but there’s no way he kept it under his tongue. I thought some had to have gotten absorbed just from the oral mucosa. He definitely had a response to the medication, being opioid-naïve…he fell asleep, which gave him respite from frantic over-grooming of his urethra…

But I digress.

Anyway, this study showed buprenorphine significant decreased the duration of treatment for NAS, by an average of thirteen days, with no increase in adverse events, as compared to treatment as usual with morphine oral solution. The study authors postulate that the long half-life of buprenorphine levels the peaks and troughs seen with the shorter-acting morphine solution.

The study was limited by its small sample size. The authors wanted to get at least 40 subjects in each treatment arm, but had a hard time recruiting parents willing to enter their newborn into a treatment trial. They ended up with 30 patients in the buprenorphine treatment arm, and 28 in the morphine treatment as usual arm.

I can only imagine how hard it was to convince nervous mothers-to-be to enter their babies in this study. They were likely already worried about NAS in their infants, and perhaps feeling guilty about being pregnant while having the disease of opioid use disorder. Asking a mom – or dad – to then enroll in a study using a new medication (new for this use, at least) would be a hard sell.

Thankfully even with fewer test subjects than desired, the data still reached statistical significance. If future studies can replicate these outcomes, we will have a new medication with which to treat NAS, which will reduce the length of stay in the hospital for babies, reduce medical costs, and get these babies home sooner.

  1. Corr et al., “The Economic Burden of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome in the United States,” Addiction, 6/13/17 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/add.13842/abstract

De-stigmatize the Doctors

 

 

 

 

As our opioid addiction epidemic rumbles on, carrying an avalanche of overdose deaths, people are asking why doctors who are authorized to prescribe buprenorphine are not doing so. Many of these physicians, interested enough to take an eight-hour course in how to prescribe buprenorphine in an office-based setting, don’t implement buprenorphine prescribing into their practices.

My last blog entry was about the obstacles identified by scientific studies as reasons why physicians don’t prescribing buprenorphine for their patients with opioid use disorders.

This blog entry is about my opinion, not about hard data. I think there are unspoken reasons why doctors don’t treat patients with this disease, the biggest being stigma.

Stigma keeps physicians from treating substance use disorders.

Starting in 1914, it was illegal for physicians to prescribe any opioid for the purpose of treating opioid addiction. Doctors went to jail for doing this. Since then, physicians have absorbed the same cultural messages as the rest of the U.S. population: addicts are bad, and doctors who want to treat addicts are probably unscrupulous. It’s difficult to reverse the attitudes of generations of physicians over a few years.

I don’t blame physicians for thinking that way, since I carried that same attitude, until I knew more about medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorders.

Most physicians don’t know about the proven, extensive benefits not only to patients but also to families and communities when addiction is treated. They must be educated, if treatment of substance use disorders is to become mainstream in primary care.

Physicians need to know that addiction medicine is now a recognized medical subspecialty, with a specialized body of knowledge, with specialized training and a board certification exam. Addiction medicine became recognized only last year, long after other specialties like allergy & immunology, preventive medicine, nuclear medicine, and genetics had recognition as specialties. I don’t point out those areas of medicine out to demean them, but to illustrate that substance use disorders affects many more patients and their families than these, yet it took many more years for recognition. I think the reason for the delay was stigma.

Physicians who want to work with patients with substance use disorders need to know they will be supported, not judged, for working in this field. At many conferences, we hear from experts from DHHS, SAMHSA, and CDC about how important it is to recruit good providers to treat patients with substance use disorders. This is helpful and encouraging, but it’s not enough.

I think it’s going to take public statements of support from state licensing boards and professional organizations for office-based treatment of opioid use disorder for physicians to be reassured that they aren’t doing something wrong or shady by treating opioid use disorders with buprenorphine.

Physicians must feel they won’t be under unfair scrutiny because they treat people with opioid use disorder.

Many physicians who might like to treat opioid use disorder with buprenorphine worry about being judged, and feel like they don’t need that kind of stress when there are so many perfectly “normal” patients with chronic disease that they can help. When I talk to them, some of them say things like, “I don’t need the extra hassle,” viewing this type of medical care as more trouble than it’s worth.

Doctors already feel a little wary. Mind you, not twenty years ago, doctors were scolded for under-treatment of pain. We were told to regard pain level as the “fifth vital sign.” We were told the risk of addition from being prescribed opioids for months to years was only about one percent. We were told by pain management experts that due to tolerance, high doses of opioids are often required, and are safe. Physicians were told they should believe what a patient said about their level of pain, and were told they had an obligation to get rid of pain.

Some of that was wrong, as it turns out. Now we know the risk of creating opioid use disorder from long-term prescribing of opioids is somewhere in the range of nine to forty-eight percent. We know that patients on higher doses of opioids are at higher risk for death.

Some doctors now find themselves reprimanded by their licensing boards for over-prescribing opioids. These doctors feel they’ve been prescribing in the exact manner recommended by the so-called pain management experts of fifteen to twenty years ago. Now they are told opioids should rarely be prescribed for chronic non-cancer pain, and that prescribing opioids at high doses isn’t good medical practice.

You can’t fault doctors for being a bit wary about any new attitude or practice that isn’t steeped in medical tradition.

You also can’t fault physicians for worrying about extra regulatory scrutiny when treating substance use disorder because there is some extra scrutiny for physicians who treat substance use disorders.

Yesterday I completed the latest form that I must submit yearly to register with my state’s department of health and human services in order to prescribe buprenorphine. I don’t think any physicians have to do that when prescribing opioids for any other disorder. Physicians with no “X” DEA number who prescribe buprenorphine “for pain,” with a wink and a nod, don’t have to submit this form.

Office-based providers of care for opioid addiction can be inspected by the DEA at any time, and we have to register with the national Department of Human Services every three years. I’m not saying this is wrong, but it is a level of scrutiny not required when physicians use controlled substances to treat other diseases.

Hassles don’t always take the form of licensing boards. Let’s not forget the phone calls from

hostile and uneducated pharmacists.

I respect pharmacists. Most are my allies, and most want to do the best thing for their patients. But I’ve received the nuttiest phone calls from pharmacists about buprenorphine prescriptions. Some pharmacists insisted I tell them exactly how long I planned to prescribe buprenorphine for a particular patient. Others say I have to put a diagnosis code on the prescription. Others won’t fill a half- day early.

My latest weird call was from a CVS pharmacist, who questioned whether my patient actually had opioid use disorder. She was worried the patient was lying to me, since the patient had never filled an opioid prescription before, per data on our state’s prescription monitoring program data.

I told the pharmacist that opioid use disorder can occur with opioids obtained from sources other than prescribed for the patient in question. Sometimes these patients use other people’s medication, or buy it on the black market. Then the pharmacist said she just had to make sure I wasn’t prescribing this buprenorphine product for pain. I said that since I used the “X” DEA number, that confirmed I was prescribing for opioid use disorder, and the “X” number was the only DEA number I wrote on this patient’s prescription.

Then the pharmacist told me I didn’t need to get an attitude with her, and that she was just trying to do her job…

I’m guilty of bad attitudes sometimes, but this wasn’t one of those times. I didn’t have a derisive tone, and was genuinely trying to educate her (so I wouldn’t get another phone call from her in the future asking these same questions). So I think she was the one with a bad attitude, towards me and my patient.

People who treat people with opioid use disorders with MAT sometimes need thick skins, much like the people with the actual disorder.

Dozens of times, when asked by another doctor what kind of medicine I practiced, I’d say “Addiction Medicine” and get a blank look. “What, you treat drug addicts?” would be the doubtful reply. Often the next question is something like, “So are you a real doctor, an M.D.?” and I have to assure them that I am.

One physician in my area tells our shared patients that I’m a legal drug dealer. I’d be tempted to discount one such report, but dozens tell me the same thing about the same doctor, so I tend to believe it’s true. Yet the few times we’ve met face-to-face, this physician says nothing to me. Sometimes I wish he would – it could open a dialogue. I have information he needs.

I’ve been judged very harshly by a few people in the 12-step community. I’ve had ex-patients, for whom I’ve prescribed methadone or buprenorphine, come up to me after they’ve entered 12-step recovery and tell me what an awful thing I did by treating them with medication. On a few occasions, those people returned to my practice to re-enter medication-assisted treatment. I do the right thing, and admit them, but it makes me feel twitchy.

Some physicians have ideas about what people with opioid use disorders are like, and worry they will bring a criminal element in their practice. In fact, recently, when I asked one doctor why he didn’t use his “X” number to treat patients with opioid use disorder, he answered that the first two patients he attempted to treat threatened his life, and he felt it was too dangerous.

I thought to myself that either this was the unluckiest doctor on the planet, or he had a terrible bedside manner. I’ve treated thousands of patients with opioid use disorders over the past fifteen years, and none have threatened my life. (I can’t say the same of my years in primary care. One soccer mom threatened bodily harm when I refused to prescribe a Z-pack for her viral respiratory infection of one day’s duration.)

I love my work because it is so rewarding. Patients actually get better, and some get better really quickly. It’s thrilling to be even a small part of their success. And they are nice people, nearly without exception. I wish I could show other physicians and providers how much fun working with people with substance use disorders can be.

Even considering the occasional hassle from pharmacists and other professionals, it’s worth it. Maybe I do have to fill out a few extra forms every year or so, and I need to be prepared for a DEA inspection at any time. Yet that’s a slight inconvenience when I see the progress my brave patients make.

Last week, a patient I’ve followed for years described his honeymoon to me. He found a well-paying job that he loves, met and married the woman of his dreams, and is working on starting a family. When I asked my usual question about his biggest source of stress, he said, “I don’t have stress. When I look back on how big a mess my life was six years ago, I have nothing at all to stress about now. I’m so blessed.”

That kind of thing makes my day.

 

Buprenorphine in the Primary Care Setting

 

 

 

 

 

I was asked to participate in a project to help primary care doctors provide buprenorphine in office-based settings. This grant, awarded to some very smart people at the University of North Carolina, uses the ECHO model to help physicians in the community become more comfortable with treating patients with opioid use disorder in their offices.

This ECHO model, originally conceptualized at the University of New Mexico, uses a hub-and-spoke model to connect experts at UNC and other locations with primary care doctors at their North Carolina locations. The ECHO model can help not only the physicians and physician extenders, but also nurses, social workers and other staff members who are a part of patients’ treatments, using teleconferencing.

Other hub-and-spoke models have placed physicians and the hub and patients at the spokes, so this is a little different. It’s also different from telemedicine, since the participants at the hub and spoke are all care providers, not providers and patients.

It’s a great program, and gives free continuing medical education hours to the physicians who participate, at the same time they get help with problematic situations in their practice.

Our group is prepared. We’ve done practice sessions and we’ve gotten comfortable with the technology (no small achievement for me!).

Now all we need are providers to participate.

We’ve had some interest, but of course would like to reach as many providers as possible. We had some brainstorming sessions about how to get more participants. We would like to reach primary care providers who have a waiver to prescribe buprenorphine, or who may be interested in prescribing.

As it turns out, many physicians who get the waiver to prescribe buprenorphine don’t end up prescribing, or only prescribe to a few patients. These providers could see more patients with opioid use disorder, and help our nation’s situation with the treatment gap.

This treatment gap is the number of people who need treatment compared to the number of people who are able to receive it. At present, experts estimate that only about 20% of people who need treatment for opioid use disorder actually get it. Of course, some of the remaining 80% aren’t yet interested in treatment, but many are desperate for help, and can’t access it.

Due to changes in the DATA 2000 law, physician extenders like nurse practitioners and physicians assistants will be allowed to prescribe buprenorphine to treat opioid use disorder, after they take a 24-hour course. Of course…many extenders in my area have been prescribing buprenorphine for years, off-label “for pain” with a wink and a nod, but the new law will allow them to be legitimate prescribers. This may expand the number of prescribers a great deal, and help to close the treatment gap.

So why do providers, after getting the training to be able to prescribe buprenorphine, not end up prescribing?

A study done by Walley et al., published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, 2008, surveyed all 356 physicians in Massachusetts who were waivered to prescribe buprenorphine. The study was done in 2005, so that was relatively early in the history of office-based treatment. Out of that total, 235 responded to the survey. Of the 235 that answered the survey, 66% had prescribed at least once, and 34% had never prescribed buprenorphine.

Of the non-prescribers, around half said they would prescribe if some barriers were removed. Nearly a third of these doctors felt like they had insufficient office support. Other barriers, in rank of descending importance, were insufficient nursing support, lack of institutional support, insufficient staff knowledge, low demand for services, and payment issues. So this study showed physicians didn’t feel like they had the support staff that they needed.

Of the physicians who were already prescribing buprenorphine in their office-based practices, the biggest barriers, in descending order of importance, were payment issues, insufficient nursing support, insufficient office support, insufficient institutional support, and pharmacy issues.

Some additional tidbits of data emerged from this study. For example, psychiatrists were less likely to prescribe buprenorphine than were primary care physicians, and physicians in solo practice were more likely to prescribe than those in group practices.

I suspect it’s easier to implement changes to medical practice when you are the boss and the lone provider. In groups of physicians, it’s probably harder to change the status quo to take on new projects and ideas, even when more support staff are presumably available.

This trend, where many of the physicians waivered to prescribe buprenorphine don’t end up prescribing, or prescribe for very few patients, has continued through the last fifteen years.

A study from 2014 by Hutchinson et al., published in the Annals of Family Medicine, looked at 120 physicians in Washington State who received training in 2010 and 2011, to prescribe buprenorphine for opioid use disorder. Out of the 120 providers trained, 92 participated in the post-training survey. Of those providers, some were excluded because they were still in their residencies, or were prescribing buprenorphine before they took the course, leaving 78 physicians newly qualified to receive a waiver to start prescribing buprenorphine for opioid use disorder

Of these 78 physicians, only 64% actually applied for the waiver. Of these 50 physicians, only 22 actually ended up treating at least one patient with buprenorphine. In other words, only about a fourth of physicians who could start prescribing to treat opioid use disorder actually did so. Of these 22 physicians, half prescribed for only three or fewer patients.

Physicians in a practice where there was already another physician prescribing buprenorphine were significantly more likely to actually start prescribing than physician in practices where no other physicians prescribed. Younger physicians were more likely to prescribe buprenorphine than older physicians. Fewer than half of these physicians were willing to have their names listed on SAMHSA’s buprenorphine treatment locator site. (http://buprenorphine.samhsa.gov)

Another study by DeFlavio et al., Rural Remote Health, 2015, was done with an anonymous survey of all of Vermont’s primary care doctors. As it turns out, 10% were buprenorphine prescribers, while 80% said they saw patients addicted to opioids. The barriers that these physicians saw for buprenorphine treatment were inadequately trained staff, insufficient time, insufficient office space, and cumbersome regulations.

Interestingly, Vermont also used a “hub and spoke” model, where experts at the hub stabilize patients newly starting buprenorphine, and after stabilization they transfer to the “spokes” which are primary care providers who continue the prescribing for these patients. This model seemed to work well for the patients and physicians who participated.

As of today, SAMHSA’s website (https://www.samhsa.gov/programs-campaigns/medication-assisted-treatment/physician-program-data accessed 6/6/17) says there are almost 38,000 physicians with waivers to prescribe buprenorphine from an office setting to treat opioid use disorder. Around 3200 have permission to treat up to 275 patients; nearly 9000 can treat up to 100 patients, and around 26,000 can treat up to thirty patients.

In other words, if all of these physicians were prescribing to their maximum, and were located in areas with the highest rates of opioid use disorder, we’d have enough manpower to treat all patients who wanted help.

But these providers aren’t at their maximum.

How can we convince these doctors to prescribe for more people? How can we recruit new providers, who will follow through with a commitment to treat people with opioid use disorder? How can we remove the barriers, which largely appear to fall under the category of insufficient support to give good care?

Some smart people have been working on this for some time, and we now have several models available to assist buprenorphine providers help patients with opioid use disorders.

“Collaborative Care Model,” also known as the Massachusetts model, uses nurse care managers to expand access to treatment. This model is based on how patients with other difficult chronic diseases are managed, such as diabetes and HIV infection. In other chronic illnesses, nurse care managers help the patient with day-to-day care management. This helps the physician know what is going on with the patient and gives the doctor much-needed support to manage the health of these patients.

Studies done on this model showed that patients did as well or better than patients managed only by physicians. This program expanded into community health centers, and the numbers of waivered physicians participating increased by 375%, though this was at a time when buprenorphine was first taking off anyway. The patients treated under this model also had significantly fewer hospital stays.

In this model, nurse managers were doing much of the medical management: doing inductions, doing follow-up on patients, and troubleshooting any problems the patients were having. Providers participating in the model mentioned that RNs can’t charge as much for the care they provide as physician extenders or physicians, so that’s a possible problem.

This year at the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s annual conference, Dr. Andrew Saxon spoke during a session which addressed how to engage practitioners to treat opioid use disorders. He treats patients in the Veterans Administration system, and describing an intriguing method that he called “academic detailing” that they use at the VA.

He said that pharmaceutical companies have already found a model that works, when it comes to getting doctors to prescribe new medications. These companies hire charming people to go to doctors’ offices to spend time talking with the physicians and physician extenders, explaining the new medication and giving them brochures with information.

Dr. Saxon started doing the same thing with VA doctors. Experienced providers make an appointment to speak with a doctor, and bring him or her information, perhaps bring lunch, and generally talk about the process and pleasures of treating opioid use disorders in an office setting. This one-on-one approach appears to work well, and the VA increased treatment availability a great deal using this approach.

The VA made a slick brochure, called “Opioid Use Disorder Provider Guide” which is a pretty good summary of information needed by providers starting to prescribe buprenorphine. Since it’s in the public domain, you can access this document at: https://www.pbm.va.gov/PBM/AcademicDetailingService/Documents/Opioid_Use_Disorder_Educational_Guide.pdf

I think this academic detailing idea is a winner. It makes sense – pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t have used this method for years if it didn’t work.

To veer off-topic for a moment…it strikes me that I’ve been trying to “detail” local providers for five years, not to get them to prescribe, but just to get them to stop telling patients to get off buprenorphine and methadone. It would be a huge relief if local doctors encouraged these patients, rather than belittling them.

I exaggerate, of course. There are many physicians in my area who are great to work with, but I guess the more difficult doctors tend to stand out in my mind.

Maybe local doctors need detailing from a physician with credentials and/or clout. Perhaps I lack the credibility or personal charisma that makes other doctors listen to me. I’d like to enlist that kind of doctor to “detail” in my area.

Back to the topic at hand.

The VA isn’t the only agency that’s created guidelines.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has had a similar document, composed by experts as a guide for prescribers: https://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/practice-support/guidelines-and-consensus-docs/asam-national-practice-guideline-supplement.pdf

There’s also information published by SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration):

https://store.samhsa.gov/product/Medication-Assisted-Treatment-of-Opioid-Use-Disorder-Pocket-Guide/SMA16-4892PG

However, the last time I tried to download this one, there seemed to be a glitch.

So there’s plenty of information available for new prescribers, and there’s a nationwide support network called PCSS MAT, for Providers’ Clinical Support System. It’s an organization dedicated to training and mentoring medical providers in the treatment of opioid use disorders with medication-assisted therapies.

If you go to their website, (http://pcssmat.org/) you can access archived trainings about various topics relating to MAT. They have online modules, podcasts, and basic information. It’s possible to be connected with a one-on-one mentor with experience treating the disease. This helps the provider feel connected and supported, particularly with difficult issues that often arise.

So currently, there’s a ton of data and support for providers who want to treat patients with opioid use disorders, more than there’s ever been before.

With our ECHO UNC launch, providers can get specific recommendations for managing complex patients (with patient privacy protected, of course). Their staff can learn how to support the prescriber, and it’s all free, paid for under grant money. The prescriber can even earn continuing education credit hours, so it’s a win-win-win prospect for them.

I’ll keep my readers updated about how it’s going.

If you are a provider or know a provider who’d like to take advantage of this opportunity to learn, get help with issues that are vexing you, and get free credit hours for doing so, send me an email so I can connect you with the ECHO UNC hub. The technology is free and easy to use.

Karmic Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Rate of Hep C infection among women giving birth in Tennessee per 1,000 live births – 2014

 

 

 

 

 

A recent report in the CDC’s MMWR (Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) described the incidence of Hepatitis C virus infection rates among women giving birth in Tennessee, and the U.S., during the time frame 2009-2014.

In essence, the number of pregnant women delivering babies who were infected with Hep C doubled in the U.S. during this time, but in Tennessee, it tripled. The factors that increased the risk of Hep C included having a history of injection drug use, living in a rural county, smoking during pregnancy, and co-occurring Hepatitis B virus infection. The highest incidence was in the Eastern mountainous part of the state.

Obviously, this increase in Hep C incidence coincides with the rise in incidence of opioid use disorders.

Eastern Tennessee has been uniquely vehement in its rejection of evidence-based treatment of opioid use disorders, while maintaining one of the highest opioid prescribing rates of the nation. You do not have to be psychic to foresee the inevitable: increased burden of disease, death, poverty, disability, and crime.

I’ve been blogging about the sorry state of Tennessee’s approach, or lack of approach, to treating opioid use disorder since I started this blog in 2010 – see entries from 11/13/10, 1/26/12, 1/30/12, 11/14/12, 7/7/13, 10/19/13, 10/23/13, 4/12/14, 4/26/14,  8/25/14, and 12/12/14. Since late 2014, I grew tired of blogging about the same issue and moved on to other topics

I started working at opioid treatment programs in 2001. In 2005, I worked for a non-profit opioid treatment program with eight sites scattered across Western North Carolina. Because their OTP in Boone had so many people driving from Tennessee for treatment, this organization tried to open an opioid treatment program in Eastern Tennessee. These patients drove an hour or more, one-way, to get treatment in NC because it wasn’t available in Tennessee.

The state of Tennessee and the officials of Johnson City would not allow an OTP to open there. I’m not sure what reason they gave, but we all know the real reason: stigma against medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorder.

If we fast forward to 2013, I was working for CRC Health when they attempted to open an opioid treatment program in Johnson City. Despite the open knowledge of a large population of people with untreated opioid use disorder in that area, state officials in Tennessee’s Health and Human Services maintained there was no need for an opioid treatment program, because there was an insignificant number of people who needed treatment. By that time, there were a number of office-based practices prescribing buprenorphine, but those physicians couldn’t legally prescribe methadone. As we know, one drug will never work for all patients.

A few years ago, the Crossroads group, which has opioid treatment programs in North Carolina, sued to get the right to put an OTP in Johnson City. They were also defeated.

People who know these things tell me there have been at least ten attempts to start an opioid treatment program in Tennessee’s Eastern part of the state over the last fifteen years, and all were refused.

The newspaper of that area, the Johnson City Press, reported earlier this year that an opioid treatment program is set to open in Gray, Tennessee, this summer. However, even though it’s going to be operated by the East Tennessee State University and the Mountain States Health Alliance, both reputable health agencies, local citizens are still picketing in an attempt to thwart the opening of this OTP, too.

I really hope science defeats ideology this time.

Also in Tennessee, as I described in several of my blogs, the state legislature passed a law making it illegal for a person with substance use disorder to become pregnant. Once the woman is pregnant, she is breaking their law, and subject to being jailed. Of course, all of the women jailed under this law so far have been poor and/or minorities, unable to afford lawyers to work on their behalf. Some of these jailed women tried to get help, but no treatment facilities would accept them, because they were pregnant.

Knowing this, pregnant women with substance use disorders may avoid pre-natal care.

I suggest this might contribute to this state’s high Hep C rate in women delivering babies, and also to their high rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome.

So…if an OTP finally opens – about seventeen years into our opioid epidemic – it will be built on the backs of scandalous numbers of people who suffered due to this backwoods misanthropy.

Ten or twenty years from now, we may look back at this disgraceful behavior of state and local officials of Eastern Tennessee with mortification, and vow never again to allow such a travesty crush ordinary people with a bad but treatable disease.

I think Tennessee will continue to give us information we can use – about how NOT to approach substance use disorders. It’s just a shame affected people have paid – and will continue to pay – the ultimate price for this information.

 

Guest Blogger: Thoughts on Roadside Suboxone Signs

This is not a picture of Daniel Rhodes. But if he were a dog, he might look like this.

 

It is with delight that I present a guest blogger who has volunteered to give his thought on the roadside Suboxone signs that I blogged about several weeks ago.

I’m also delighted that I get to take a week off blogging, and hope all my readers have a great holiday weekend.

Daniel Rhodes is an LCAS-A and LPC-A working in both an OTP and a private Office Based Practice. He had a background in Abstinence-Based treatment models, and has, over the years, come to believe strongly in MAT. He believes in the importance of both approaches and that each has much to learn from the other.

When I first saw a sign on the side of the road advertising Suboxone, I reacted strongly enough to take a picture to show at work and marvel over. I discussed the issue with Dr. Burson, and realized my initial reaction was incomplete.  My gut told me that there was something off about the situation, that there was something unethical or below-board happening, but I could not understand why that might be.  I believe pretty strongly in a Harm-Reduction approach to addiction treatment, first managing the dangers of overdose and disease then trying to help addicts address the issues underlying their disease. I think wider availability of the combination buprenorphine/naloxone product is a good step towards that goal of Harm-Reduction.  In fact, I have been known to argue for the combo product to be available in vending machines. While this is an extreme example and there are many reasons it is not a feasible option, I do think it illustrates a valid principle: Buprenorphine saves lives, prevents the spread of disease, and is a remarkably safe medication. Expanded availability is a good thing.

                So why did this mobile Suboxone van raise my hackles?  Surely, this would increase access to the potentially life-saving medication, and should therefore line up perfectly with my philosophy!  In part, of course, it does; however, I have been able to articulate for myself several ways it does not, several reasons for my misgivings.

                First, as Dr. Burson has said many times, it should be no more expensive for a doctor’s appointment addressing addiction than it is for any other appointment. In the affluent area of Lake Norman, were I to pay out-of-pocket for a routine follow-up visit with my primary care MD (without applying insurance), my cost would be $65. According to their website, the Mobile Suboxone practice charges $175 for an office visit, making their per-appointment charge roughly 270 percent what my primary-care MD charges. While there is certainly nothing wrong with making a profit, I have to wonder if the price differential is warranted, or if it is taking advantage of a relatively desperate population.

                Second, since their website does not identify the person (people?) seeing the patients, there is no way to assess the legitimacy of the practice. In my previous example of buprenorphine in a vending machine, there could be no pretense of legitimate medical practice. However, in a Mobile Suboxone unit, a patient might leave believing he or she had received sound medical advice when this was not the case. There is little on their own website that points to more than a veneer of sound medicine; there are many claims, but paltry sourcing (Wikipedia among them) and seemingly no accountability. As far as I can find, they make reference to a Physician Assistant and “physicians throughout the state,” but attach no names to their practice. In short, even though the practice might expand access to buprenorphine, it seems to be doing so in a way that potentially bills their service as more than it is.

                Third, and following on my point about the medical quasi-legitimacy, the website compares their service to Methadone clinics in a way that I do not believe is fair or even reasonable. They claim that Methadone clinics are too expensive, that they disrupt life too much. While it is certainly true that daily dosing in a clinic can be a burden, particularly if a patient lives far away, a clinic offers a vital component seemingly lacking in the model of the Mobile Suboxone practice: accountability. While they make claims of daily electronic interaction, the daily in-person contact of a Methadone clinic provides a much better picture of a patient’s progress than any electronic communication could. A Methadone clinic mandates and provides counseling for its patients, typically included in the daily fee. The website for the mobile practice offers counseling electronically, the frequency of which is “between you and the counselor,” at a cost of an additional dollar per minute. It seems like an apples-to-oranges comparison: Yes, Methadone might be more expensive than their service, but it comes with much more intense support.

                Finally, that the signs mention “micro-loans” is worrisome. I am not sure how this will work, and I find no mention of the loans on the site. “Micro-loan,” however, evokes images of payday lenders, pawn shops, and other outlets associated with active addiction. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which no one is taking advantage.

I believe the idea of the Mobile Suboxone practice risks losing the ground we have fought so hard to gain in the discussion of the “opioid crisis.” At last, MAT is something being discussed in political circles, and funding is finally opening up to expand access to treatment. Poorly run practices, profiteering, and anything that risks damaging the perceived legitimacy of MAT risks lives. If the practice is not well-run, I fear it might prove an impediment to treatment rather than the expansion it claims to be.

                In conclusion, I may be completely wrong. The Mobile Suboxone practice may be exactly what we need to help more patients get access to life-saving treatment. I sincerely hope my misgivings prove unfounded and that the people behind the roadside signs are creating a new way to combat the disease of addiction. At this point, however, I believe the onus of proof lies on them to show the rest of us how their treatment will work, and that they are not taking advantage of a population that so desperately needs the help offered by well-administered MAT.

 

 

Opioid Addiction from Different Perspectives

Perspective is Essential

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was asked to speak as a member of a panel about opioid use disorder, at the annual addiction conference at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) this month, called the McLeod Institute. This conference was named after Dr. Jonnie McLeod, a great leader in the field who passed away several years ago.

I’ve spoken at this conference several times before, and it’s always a treat. It lifts my spirits to see new recruits entering the field of substance use disorder treatments, all fresh-faced and enthusiastic.

One whole day of the conference was devoted to the problem of opioid use disorders, and I’m sorry I couldn’t attend the morning’s events. After lunch, the five of us on the panel took our seats.

At one end was the operator of an abstinence based, 12-step oriented non-profit outpatient treatment program, one of the best in Charlotte. To his left was a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer whose focus was on interdiction of heroin flooding the streets of Charlotte. Then there was me, and to my left was Donna Hill, program director for Project Lazarus in Wilkes County. At the extreme left was Jennifer, a social worker from New Jersey with many years of experience in the substance use disorder counseling field.

We all introduced ourselves and said a little about how we approached the treatment of opioid use disorders. When it was my turn, I did my usual spiel about how treatment of opioid use disorder with medications including methadone and buprenorphine and naltrexone are the most evidence-based treatments available, yet still have the most stigma against them. I told them our country overused treatments that don’t work, sometimes over and over. I told the audience I worked for an opioid treatment program and had my own office-based practice where I prescribe buprenorphine.

The whole point of the panel was to allow the audience to hear the different viewpoints on our nation’s problem with opioid use disorders, and the panelists didn’t disappoint.

Of course the director of the 12-step oriented, abstinence-based outpatient program advocated for that form of treatment. He made some neutral-to-negative comments about MAT, but he wasn’t as vehement as I expected.

The police officer, not being involved in treatment, mainly gave facts about how awful the heroin problem is in Charlotte. He said it was one of the two hubs, along with Columbus, OH, that drug cartels were using as a base for sales to all the other towns in the Eastern U.S. He explained how the purity had risen and how fentanyl and carfentanil were now being added to heroin or being sold as heroin, because they were cheaper to make and many times more potent. He repeated the account of a police officer who had to be treated for a severe overdose that happened just from brushing heroin off his sweater. (I did read about that on the internet and had some questions regarding the story but wasn’t about to quibble with a man with a gun.)

Donna from Project Lazarus probably could have justified talking the longest, since Project Lazarus is active in so many aspects of treatment, prevention, education, and community outreach, among other things. She gave a nice summary of all the things Project Lazarus does, and encouraged people to call them if they wished to set up a similar organization in another place.

Jennifer the social worker said some good things about how all of us treating opioid use disorder need to work together and communicate, but then, in my opinion, she blew it when she said she disapproved of how treatment programs take advantage of people with opioid use disorders by charging them money to be in treatment. At first I didn’t know exactly who she was targeting but when she said clinics discouraged patients from getting off methadone and buprenorphine only because it was bad for their business, I felt my ire rising.

You know I had something to say about that.

I got a little heated, and said I didn’t think it was fair to imply opioid treatment programs were unethical because they charge patients money to be in treatment. I said other medical specialties charge money for their services, and that this was the way this country approached healthcare. I went on to say that opioid treatment programs don’t keep patients on methadone because it’s a business model; it’s because patients who leave methadone treatment at an OTP have an eight-fold increase in the risk of dying, and a high risk of relapse with all the misery that can come with it: poorer mental and physical health, fractured relationships, damaged self-esteem, lowered personal productivity.

After all, I said, is there any other medication for any other disease that reduces the risk of death by eight times, that has the stigma against it that methadone does?

OK…it’s possible I’m more lucid as I’m writing this than I was in the moment, but I blurted out something to this effect.

Other than that incident, I was relatively well-behaved.

I liked all my fellow panel members, even though we didn’t agree about everything. We all agreed on the most important thing – we all want to keep people from dying from opioid use disorder, and we all want them to find a good quality of life in their recovery.

I stayed to listen to the second panel, composed of people in recovery from opioid use disorder. There were six people on that panel, and of the six, five were either neutral or critical of methadone or buprenorphine. These five people all said that 12-step recovery in Narcotics Anonymous allowed them to quit using drugs and live a successful recovery.

The last patient was different. She gave a brief history of her recovery, and said that though she found 12-step recovery helpful, she needed methadone to return her to a place where she could function normally. She described being off opioids for some months, but being plagued with post- acute withdrawal that ultimately lead to a relapse. Now, she considers methadone a necessary medication for her, and said if she had to be on it for the rest of her life in order to feel normal, she could accept that.

I was so impressed with this lady’s courage. It had to be hard to follow five peoples’ stories that all centered on abstinence-based recovery with her story of being in a form of treatment with so much stigma against it. I was very pleased by what she was saying, and felt like she was speaking for all the people who have benefitted from medication-assisted treatment.

I was disappointed there wasn’t more diversity on this panel. I don’t doubt the other five peoples’ recovery stories, but they were very similar. One of them spoke very negatively about methadone, but later revealed she misused her methadone to an extreme degree and came off a relatively high dose “cold turkey,” which of course is not recommended. Another six people in recovery from opioid use disorder may have the opposite experience with 12-step recovery and medication-assisted treatment

I was socializing with some of the panel members before leaving, and to my surprise, the operator of the non-profit abstinence-based outpatient program told me he was sorry if it sounded like he was trying to bash methadone treatment. I was surprised and pleased, and thanked him.

I’m glad I was there, and I’m glad to see fresh recruits joining the effort to help people with opioid use disorder in their recovery.