Archive for the ‘American Society of Addiction Medicine’ Category

The Tenth Annual NC Addiction Medicine Conference: A Success

 

I just got back from Asheville, the location of the yearly spring conference on Addiction Medicine. This meeting is sponsored by the NC Governor’s Institute on Drug Abuse and the North Carolina chapter of the Society of Addiction Medicine, among others.

I’m glad I took an extra day off work to go to the pre-conference. Last year the preconference was one of the best parts of the whole meeting, and this year was the same. I went to the Motivational Interviewing (MI) preconference, and got a nice refresher on the basic principles of MI. I also got a chance to practice my skills during the session, which can be daunting while being watched by other people.

MI is like that. When done by someone extremely skilled at this counseling technique, it looks so easy. I tell myself, “I can do that, no problem.” Then when given an opportunity, I get brain freeze and it’s not so easy. Like any skill, the only way to get better is to do it and keep doing it, and maybe have a person who is skilled at MI give feedback from recorded sessions (with patient permission, of course). I know the counselors at my OTP submitted recordings to their clinical supervisor for feedback on how well they adhere to MI technique. This feedback can be key.

The first day of the conference proper kicked off with an address by Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, who is the Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use, SAMHSA. She talked about the federal response to the opioid use disorder epidemic, which includes strengthening the public health surveillance, supporting research, providing Narcan, advancing the practice of pain management and improving treatment access, among other things.

Then she talked about SAMHSA’s response to the opioid epidemic, including the STR grants authorized under the CURES Act, then about the State Opioid Response act, which has a budget of $1.5 billion. She also discussed four or five other important SAMHSA measures.

I appreciate her passion. I wanted to stomp my feet and say “Amen,” when she endorsed using only evidence-based treatments to treat opioid use disorders. She said we should stop doing detox only, unless patients were provided with depot naltrexone injections before leaving detox. Then she said of lab testing in medication assisted treatment that cost thousands of dollars: “This is nonsense.” Yes. Thank you, Dr. McCance-Katz.

Next to speak was Kody Kinsley who gave the NC update on the state of addiction. He described how we have spent our grant dollars so far, and about how Medicaid will change in the future. He talked specifically about how Medicaid expansion could help our state. I don’t think he had to convince this audience. Most of us have seen how dismal medical care (not only substance use disorder treatment) can be for people with no insurance and no Medicaid.

He lost me when he started talking about SPAs. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I quickly learned he wasn’t talking about places to go for massages and facials. I got so bogged down trying to decide what a SPA was that I missed much of the last part of his message.

A talk from Sandra Bishop-Freeman from the NC Department of Epidemiology and Public Health was scary as hell.

This isn’t a good time in history to be someone with substance use disorder in general, and opioid use disorder in particular. Fentanyl and its analogues are potent, and small packages of these products contain a great deal of opioid firepower. This means it’s easier to smuggle into the country. These fentanyl analogues are sometimes made into counterfeit pills, to fool authorities, but these counterfeits often end up on the street. A buyer may think he’s getting a Vicodin pill when it’s really fentanyl.

And now cocaine is being laced with fentanyl, fueling a twin epidemic. This is scary because cocaine has made a resurgence in my county, or maybe never left in the first place. But this fentanyl-laced cocaine could cause quick overdoses for people not intending to use fentanyl.

Then there’s news about a 1000% increase in deaths from methamphetamines, designer benzodiazepines, and combinations of Imodium and Kratom that are causing deaths.

It was a great and informative talk, but a bit depressing.

The last of the plenary speakers was Dr. Corey Waller, an entertaining and informative speaker. He talked about integrating substance use disorder treatment into hospital systems with specific and practical ideas about making this happen. In this talk and another later in the day, he inspired me to want to try again to work with my local hospital.

I love hearing new ideas and learning about current trends, and I also love seeing old friends and meeting new people working in the field. I was able to talk with four or five other doctors I’ve known for years, and catch up with what happening in their lives. That’s always fun.

I was one of three presenters at a morning workshop about updates and challenges of prescribing buprenorphine (and methadone) for patients with opioid use disorder. It went very well.

I can’t say I enjoy doing presentations, but there’s nothing like a presentation to force me to thoroughly investigate a topic, so I learn even if no one else does. And I feel good about doing the occasional presentation, because I’m doing my part to help educate new prescribers.

I had some material to cover toward the end of the session, and I thought the other two physicians would use up the bulk of our time. In other words, I didn’t think I would have to talk for very long. But the two other physicians were gracious and wanted to allow me enough time to talk, so they left me with a half hour.

That worked out well, because after my fifteen minutes talking about how opioid treatment programs and office-based buprenorphine providers could work together, we still had fifteen minutes for audience questions. And this audience asked some great questions, covering our most difficult issues: misuse of monoproduct versus combo product; co-occurring use of benzodiazepines either by prescription or illicit; law enforcement investigations of buprenorphine prescribers; when – if ever – to terminate treatment for noncompliance; maximum dose for buprenorphine products; the cost of treatment and grant funds, to name but a few.

During lunch, Dr. Frederick Altice gave an informative and concise presentations on Hepatitis C. He made me wish I had enough time to treat our patients at the opioid treatment program who have Hep C, instead of needing to refer them to the nearest FQHC (federally-qualified health center). It’s getting very easy to treat these patients, with liver biopsies and interferon being a thing of the past.

Late in the afternoon, I facilitated our closed opioid treatment program session. This session is meant only for providers working at OTPs, and we usually talk about topics specific to treatment at OTPs. This year, the topic was advocacy.

This topic was based on a case that I blogged about September 16, 2018. They provider involved in the case, Lisa Wheeler, PA, gave an excellent and passionate presentation about the specific case, but went farther into the issue. She explained how and why stigma exists, and the negative consequences we see when provider-based stigma cuts into patient care.

She presented the full case, explaining how a patient of hers, brand new to treatment, was diagnosed with endocarditis and told that per hospital policy, she couldn’t get a second surgery on an infected artificial heart valve. She was also denied visitors and was forced to give up all electronics in order to be admitted for treatment, leaving her with no cell phone or internet access and very lonely indeed.

Lisa Wheeler also gave us the glorious follow up of the case: she – eventually, after long hours of advocacy by Lisa and other people – was transferred to UNC Chapel Hill where she underwent life-saving cardiac surgery. She now is doing very well, healthy, with seven months of recovery.

Then we had a general discussion about other cases we’ve seen where healthcare providers denied care to patients on medications to treat opioid use disorder. Of the twenty or so providers in the room, many had similar cases.

We talked about what we can do to combat stigma, and came up with some general ideas. Sometimes just calling our colleagues, to try to educate them in a friendly way, can be the best approach. We can be informal and friendly, and educate in a gentle way. We need to remember that many providers didn’t get much education about substance use disorders and their treatment during medical school or residency. Those of us working in this field can be a source of information for other providers, who often change their approach when they have more facts.

When bias is egregious and causes harm to patients, sometimes it’s necessary to get more outspoken with advocacy. We identified the Legal Action Center, located in New York City, as a group with some materials that can be useful. They have a MAT “toolkit” with sample letters, to be adapted to specific situations, such as if a patient is charged with driving while impaired while on a stable dose of methadone or buprenorphine. There’s a sample letter to send to a patient’s lawyer, to help explain MAT with its benefits. ( https://lac.org/mat-advocacy/ )

In the end, a handful of providers agreed to form a committee to try to form better advocacy ideas. I’ll keep you informed how that goes.

The entire conference was great, and I’ve only described part of the first day. I could go on & on, but in the interest of keeping this blog post to a readable length, I’ll end with an exhortation to my readers: if you provide treatment to people with substance use disorders, you need to go to this yearly conference. Now there’s also an “Essentials” conference in Raleigh in the fall, which presents a second opportunity to learn.

You can go to this website for more details: https://addictionmedicineconference.org/

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Advice for New Prescribers

 

 

 

The medical care providers of this nation are being encouraged get training necessary to prescribe buprenorphine products (brand names Suboxone, Zubsolv, Bunavail, Sublocade, and the generics) for the treatment of opioid use disorder in their patients. We need more good prescribers, because even after twenty years into this opioid situation, only about twenty percent of patients who need treatment can get it.

I’ve written on this topic a few times in the past, but this blog entry will contain some advice directed to new prescribers of buprenorphine products. Hopefully it will help them have good experiences prescribing medication-assisted treatment.

Here are some ideas that work for me at my office:

Treat the patient with opioid use disorder with the same attitude and compassion that you would for any other patient with a potentially fatal chronic illness. If you can’t do that, then don’t treat patients with substance use disorders. Patients detect negative attitudes such as distain and dislike even when those attitudes are communicated non-verbally. For whatever reason, if you can’t put judgment aside, then work on your own issues before you attempt to treat suffering people trying to get well.

Patients will resent a physician with a bad attitude. That will contaminate the relationship with predictable results.

For example, I talked to one physician who had his waiver to prescribe buprenorphine from an office setting. I asked him why he wasn’t using his waiver to treat patients, since there were so many in our community that needed help.

He told me the visits with the first two patients went poorly. He said both these patients threatened his life and the lives of his family members. After that, he decided not to risk treating anyone with opioid use disorder.

I was shocked. I’ve never, in the thirteen years I’ve been prescribing from an office practice, had any patient threaten my life, though I’ve made some angry at me. I had to wonder what kind of bedside manner this doctor had, for his first two patients to want to kill him. That sounds like I’m blaming the doctor, and maybe I am, but his experience was so contrary to my own that I had to wonder what was going on. I suspect his patients didn’t feel respected by him.

I’ve had one patient threaten me with bodily harm, but that was at an opioid treatment program in Gastonia, NC, more than a decade ago. The patient was an avowed KKK member, tall and large, with tattoos of hate groups on his muscular arms. I might have been worried, except at the time he threatened me, he was so impaired on benzos that I could have pushed him over with a finger. I’d just told him he couldn’t dose with methadone that day, due to impairment. The next week, he greeted when we passed in the hall. I assume he had been in a blackout from his benzodiazepine ingestion the week before and didn’t remember our previous interaction.

Be clear with your patients about your expectations. At the first visit, I sit with the patient and go over a patient agreement form. I adapted it from a SAMHSA website where you can find helpful forms, tools, and ideas.

https://pcssnow.org/resources/clinical-tools/

https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/training-resources/publications

In that agreement, I outline my expectations. I have paragraphs indicating that disruptive or violent behavior won’t be tolerated and are grounds for immediate dismissal from my practice. In thirteen years, I’ve never had one patient become rowdy or disruptive. Having said that, I do realize other prescribers have had different experiences.

I ask patients to keep and be on time for appointments, and if they don’t show up and don’t call, they will be charged for the missed visit. I tell patients I won’t call in prescriptions if they miss a visit. Having said that, I’m also flexible enough to know that things do come up – cars break down, traffic jams occur, etc. In the winter, travel can be treacherous, so that’s another factor to be dealt with. All I ask is that the patients communicate problems early so we can find a reasonable solution.

Patients who miss appointments, don’t call, and won’t answer our calls to find out what’s going on will have problems at my practice. It may or may not be their fault, but if it doesn’t work out they will need to find a new provider.

My agreement also says I won’t “fire” a patient before I talk to them face-to-face. Patients tell me they’ve been dismissed by a practice by letter, for some issue or another. I think that’s cowardly, and disrespectful to the patient. If there’s a reason I feel I can no longer to continue treatment as we are, I owe it to the patient to tell them exactly what the problem is. Sometimes we can find solutions short of termination and sometimes we can’t. At least the patient will know I respect them enough to talk to them, and they will know the basis of my decision. They will also get a referral to a new provider, or at least a recommendation.

Be careful with patient selection and try to match the patient with the best level of care.

Not every patient will do well in an office-based setting. For example, if a patient has been using buprenorphine products illicitly by insufflation or injection, that patient probably is best treated in an opioid treatment program, where observed dosing is done.

Most patients need to be on the combination products buprenorphine/naloxone. Adverse reactions do occur with the monoproduct, but they are rare, and drug diversion is not. If a new patient needs the monoproduct, I refer them to an opioid treatment program where they can be properly observed.

If that patient has been treated in another office-based setting with medical records that support their progress and compliance on the monoproduct, my recommendation would be different. Many factors influence my treatment decisions, so I need all the information I can get to make the best decisions.

This leads me to my next recommendation: get old records. Make the effort to get records from a previous practice. Sometimes patients, to curry favor with a new prescriber, will tell tales about how awful their last prescriber was. That may be true…or there may be more to the story, so get records to get a better idea of what happened at the last practice.

Don’t falsify your own records. It’s unethical and probably illegal to bill for services you document but don’t provide. To get higher insurance reimbursements, physicians sometimes chart long review of systems and/or physical exams than were performed. This is called “up-billing.” I suspect up-billing when I see records with four pages of single-spaced type for each visit, but then notice the same four pages for each monthly visit, with no changes.

I blogged before about a patient whose records recorded an exam saying “consistent with eight-month pregnancy” for every monthly visit for over a year. Yeah…kind of suspicious…using that cut-and-paste feature, I think.

If you do telemedicine, make sure you have some sort of medical personnel on site with the patient to look for physical finding you may miss with telecommunications. I just admitted a patient to our opioid treatment program who had been on Suboxone for six months from a provider he only saw online. This patient was injecting his medication, but his prescriber couldn’t see it. His most prominent tracks were on the side of his neck, which could be hidden with a high collar. Obviously, this could have ended in disaster had the patient not realized he needed a higher level of care.

Be careful about lab schemes. If a laboratory diagnostic service is charging patients $500 for one drug screen, it’s probably a scam. In past years, these organization popped up like mushrooms in manure, saying they could do extensive lab testing for all patients, but only charge those with insurance. Uninsured would get free testing.

As it turns out, some of those companies charged outrageous fees to the insurance companies, including Medicaid and Medicare, for expensive and unnecessary testing, in get-rich-quick schemes. Here’s a link to an article that explains how this works:

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/report-urine-based-drug-tests-helping-some-doctors-soak-profits

Good providers don’t want to sully their name by associating with shady laboratory service providers. Physicians can do good point-of-care testing on site for $10 or less. Sometimes patients need more extensive testing, and this can be decided on a case-by-case basis rather than testing every patient for dozens of drugs that aren’t commonly used in the community where you practice.

Be aware of what drugs are trending in your area and make sure they are included in your drug testing protocol. In the past, heroin was rare in rural areas, but that’s changed. As I’ve discussed on this blog, heroin frequently contains fentanyl, a much more powerful opioid that’s responsible for many overdose deaths.

Ask your new patients what drugs are being used in your community. They can be great sources of information, as can local addiction medicine educational conferences, and your local law enforcement officials.

Make friends with the medical director at your local opioid treatment program. Most physician medical directors at opioid treatment programs are happy to work collaboratively with office-based providers. We share patients all the time and need to do what’s best for the patient. We don’t need to look at each other as competitors, because there are more than enough patients for everyone, unfortunately. Let’s work together to get people into treatment, and to match the patient with the right level of care.

It can be a relief for an office-based provider to know they have a facility willing to deliver a higher level of care when necessary. Sometimes the patient may need inpatient treatment, but at other times it might be an opioid treatment program, where the patient may come daily for dosing and oversight.

Again, some patients, in an effort to curry favor with a new prescriber, may talk disparagingly about another treatment facility, so don’t take a patient’s word that an opioid treatment program does an awful job.

Decades ago in my previous life as a primary care physician, I learned that the new patient who tells me how wonderful I am compared to their last terrible doctor will soon be saying the same thing to another new doctor, about how terrible I am. I know there are terrible doctors, but there are also some patients that can’t be pleased no matter how good the physician.

Finally, get involved with organizations that can help you. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel; as I mentioned above, help is available from several sources.

Go to the SAMHSA website mentioned above and you will find helpful resources. Or you can go to the American Society of Addiction Medicine website for information: https://www.asam.org/  You may decide to go to one of their excellent conferences.

Go to the Providers’ Clinical Support System (PCSS) website and search their educational offerings at https://pcssnow.org/ They have archived webinars, mentoring programs, and other great things available.

If you work in North Carolina, there is the UNC ECHO program, which offers live teleconferences three days per week on issues surrounding medication-assisted treatment of patients in the office setting. You can hear cases presented and listen to input from experts and other prescribers, while getting free (yes I said free) CME hours. Once involved, you can present your own difficult cases to get help with difficult patient situations. You can go to their website at: https://echo.unc.edu/ or leave me a comment with your email and I can connect you to the organization.

It can be difficult to persuade new prescribers that treating patients with opioid use disorder is rewarding and fun. I became a physician because I wanted to help people, sappy as that sounds. I didn’t feel the sense of satisfaction during the decade I worked in primary care, for whatever reason, that I now feel working in the field of Addiction Medicine.

Book Review: “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America,” by Beth Macy

Dopesick, by Beth Macy

This well-written book has it all: compact information about how the opioid epidemic started, how our nation failed to act early to mitigate the damage of the epidemic, and how the epidemic shifted into our present predicament. The author did a great deal of research and talked to experts with vital information, but she humanized this data with personal stories about people affected by the opioid epidemic. She told this story not only from the view of the person with opioid use disorder, but also illustrated the grief of families who lost loved ones. The prolonged grief of families who have lost loved ones to opioid overdose deaths is rarely examined as well as it is in this book.

This is a book that will be staying on my shelf for a re-read.

The author is a journalist who works for the Roanoke Times newspaper, so this book focuses mostly on events in the western part of Virginia.

Avid readers on this topic will recall the book “Painkiller,” by Barry Meier, who also covered rural Western Virginia. Ms. Macy’s book picks up where Mr. Meier’s left off. They talk about many of the same communities and the same treatment providers, fifteen years later.

Mr. Meier’s book, published in 2003, could have been an early warning to the U.S. healthcare system. Unfortunately, the book wasn’t widely read, so few people took any note of what was going on, other than those of us already working in the field. I understand Mr. Meier wrote a second edition of “Painkiller” this year, and I plan to read and review it.

The most remarkable theme of Ms. Macy’s book is how the opioid use disorder epidemic grew worse over the past fifteen years. After physicians finally stopped prescribing so many opioid pain pills, these pills were less available on the black market. Many people with opioid use disorder switched to cheap and potent heroin.

In Ms. Macy’s book, she tells the experience of a rural physician, Dr. Art Van Zee, who was also interviewed for Barry Meier’s book. He was one of the brave people who stood up at conferences and raised the question about the ethics of Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin, when it wasn’t easy to question anything about that drug company. He’s the first physician I can recall who actively sought answers about his perceived over-prescribing and mis-marketing of OxyContin.

This isn’t in the book: I remember Dr. Van Zee at an Addiction Medicine conference called “Pain and Addiction: Common Threads,” that I attended in 2003 o4 2004. I bought the recordings of the conference, because I was so excited to learn more about Addiction Medicine. I remember a recorded session where Dr. Van Zee asked a question after a lecture, asking – as I remember it many years later – why Purdue Pharma was still peddling their OxyContin as a relatively harmless opioid for chronic pain, while he was seeing patients with lives destroyed by this drug.

It was one of those moments where all you hear are crickets. His question wasn’t answered, but rather he was reprimanded by the speaker. He was cautioned to remember our conferences were sponsored in part by Purdue money, and that appropriate prescribing of OxyContin was a huge benefit to patients. He was told it wasn’t the drug, it was the prescribing that needed to be fixed.

Fast forward to 2007. As described in “Dopesick,” Purdue Pharma pled guilty to fraudulent marketing of OxyContin, which was a felony misbranding charge. Purdue paid $600 million in fines. Its top three executives pled guilty to misdemeanor versions of the same crime, and ordered to pay a total of $34.5 million.

So yes, inappropriate prescribing was a big part of the problem, but Purdue deliberately misinformed physicians about potential dangers of the drug, which contributed to inappropriate prescribing. From a 2018 perspective, that speaker’s answer to Dr. Van Zee seems disingenuous at best.

Dr. Van Zee’s perceptions, based on his clinical experiences, were correct. Around that same time, I was seeing the same thing in rural Western North Carolina. I remember having twenty to thirty new patients show up on admission day, all of them were using OxyContin, almost exclusively. This drug was easy to crush to snort and inject, and Purdue knew it.

Purdue Pharma testified before congress in 2003 that they were nearly ready to release a new formulation of their OxyContin pill that was more abuse resistant. As it turns out, that new formulation wasn’t released until 2010. With that change, people with opioid use disorder changed to other opioids, easier to misuse, such as Roxicodone and Opana. Eventually Opana underwent reformulation to a less abused form.

But I digress; back to the book. The author’s first few chapters summarize the history of opioid use disorder and the factors that lead up to the release and promotion of OxyContin. It related how this drug crept into the social fabric of Southwestern Virginia, and how early attempts to sound an alarm about its abuse were met with contempt from drug company representatives.

Chapter Three tells of the “unwinnable” case brought against Purdue Pharma by Virginia attorney general John Brownlee. He went up against the famous Rudy Giuliani, who was one of the lawyers who represented the drug company, and successfully negotiated the eleventh-largest fine against a pharmaceutical company. This chapter contrasts this legal victory with the devastating grief of parents who lost their children to overdose death with OxyContin. The book describes the creation of the “OxyKills.com” message board, which became a sort of a database for overdose deaths. The chapter after that contains depressing descriptions of how Purdue Pharma’s corporation executives and the owners, the Sackler family, distanced themselves from the profound harm caused by their medication and criminal mis- marketing.

The next several chapters contain the tragic stories of people who became addicted to opioids, and their journeys through the criminal justice system, the addiction treatment system, and the pain their families felt, every step of the way. The author illustrates the ridiculousness of our patchwork system of care for people with opioid use disorder, and how ineffective treatments are often pushed as first-line options.

Then the book details efforts to pursue the heroin ring that sprang up in Virginia, and how the ringleader, a man named Ronnie Jones, was eventually arrested, charged and convicted of trafficking heroin from Baltimore to the Roanoke suburbs. Many of Jones’ drug runners were addicted young adults, many female, from Roanoke’s suburbs. Families were shocked when they found out their children were involved with the drug trade. Heroin used to be an inner-city drug, but times have changed. Heroin is now plentiful in suburban and rural areas, as this book illustrates repeatedly.

I was most interested in the author’s description of available treatments. Usually I dread reading writers’ summaries of treatment for opioid use disorder. If they describe medication-assisted treatment at all, it’s often couched in negative terms. However, this author did her homework.

She describes the accurate reasons why medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine and methadone is the gold standard of treatment, and even writes about some of the success stories. However, she also writes about the more common public perception of buprenorphine: “shoddy” prescribers located in strip malls who don’t mandate counseling or do drug testing patients. She writes about the poor opinion of Virginia law enforcement officials, who criticize doctors for not weaning people off the drug, and for allowing patients to inject the drug & sell it on the street.

However, it’s clear the author was able to grasp harm reduction principles, and latest research findings, since she said (on page 219) the unyielding opposition to MAT was the single biggest barrier to reducing overdose deaths.

I felt gratified to read this in print. I underlined it.

She also pointed out how some states’ refusal to expand Medicaid when given the opportunity kept many people with opioid use disorder from being able to access treatment. That’s more perceptive than I expect from a writer who isn’t trained in public health or substance use disorder treatment.

But my favorite part of the book was on page 221, where an addiction counselor named Anne Giles said of the opioid overdose death epidemic: “We should be sending helicopters!”

I underlined this too.

She pointed out that if the same number of people dying from opioid overdoses were dying of Ebola, the government would be sending helicopters of medical help to rescue people and contain the epidemic, and she’s right. We ought to be sending helicopters….helicopters loaded with emergency medical personnel and treatment medication. (By the way, per most recent data from NIDA, over 49,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdose in 2017. That’s one-hundred and thirty-four people per day. If they were dying from Ebola…helicopters for sure.)

So I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in this topic. Even if you aren’t interested, it’s so well-written that it will entertain you. I particularly appreciate the author’s talent at describing so many facets of this opioid epidemic and the obvious scope of her research.

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.

 

A Bridge to Treatment

 

 

 

 

 

In my last blog, I lamented the lack of communication and cooperation between medical professionals involved in the care of patients with opioid use disorders.

Opinion about medication-assisted treatment has split the field in half. Most old-school, 12-step-based, abstinence-only programs discourage patients with opioid use disorder from seeking treatment with medication like methadone and buprenorphine. Some providers at opioid treatment programs rail against the lack of knowledge and open-mindedness of these programs, yet don’t inform stable patients on buprenorphine about their office-based options, which may be more appropriate and less restrictive (an option usually not available to methadone patients). Office-based providers accept patients from opioid treatment programs without bothering to get records that could give essential information that could make treatment safer.

Hospitals lack information about appropriate referral sources to treat opioid use disorders, and emergency departments let patients leave after a near-fatal overdose with only a list of phone numbers to call for help.

It’s time to break down barriers and put the welfare of patients first.

At the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) conference this year, I heard a possible solution.

Dr. Sarah Wakeman and Dr. Laura Kehoe, both associated with Harvard Medical School, talked about their Bridge Clinic. This program is set up to be a bridge between acute hospital or emergency department care and long-term primary care for patients with substance use disorders.

This model is “low barrier” or “low threshold” care, which means eliminating obstacles between the patient and appropriate care. The clinic’s mission is to provide on-demand, compassionate care to patients in all stages of addiction.

Most of their patients have opioid use disorder, and around 77% are treated with buprenorphine products. Around 11% are treated with naltrexone. I assume the others are treated for alcohol use disorder or other substance use disorders.

The Bridge Clinic serves as an immediate access clinic for Massachusetts General Hospital patients with substance use disorders who don’t have a primary care provider. This clinic provides both drop- in and scheduled appointments for patients. It’s been in operation for the past several years and has grown quickly, indicating a need for their services. In some cases, patients elect to remain in treatment at this Bridge Clinic rather than go on to primary care, office-based medication-assisted treatment.

This clinic is opened seven days per week, from 9am to 5pm. The physicians who staff this clinic are very aggressive with starting same day pharmacotherapy for substance use disorders, not only MAT for opioid use disorder. They refer to opioid treatment programs when that level of care is most appropriate, or if the patient needs methadone rather than buprenorphine.

They also work with families, and connect patients with other needed services.

The clinic staff includes an addictionologist, family practice physician waivered to prescribe buprenorphine, recovery coach for peer support services, resource specialist who finds other programs to help patients with their needs (food, housing, etc), and administrative assistant and a patient service coordinator. Extended care in the overnight hours can be provided by the colleagues at the emergency department.

Patients are referred from Massachusetts General Hospital, where patients with substance use disorders are offered induction onto medication-assisted treatment while hospitalized.

That’s right. I said that. Patients with opioid use disorder are started on methadone and buprenorphine during hospitalizations for other medical ailments. For example, a patient with endocarditis from IV opioid use disorder can be started on treatment with methadone or buprenorphine before ever leaving the hospital, and the Bridge Clinic can take care of the patient during the gap between hospitalization and arrival at an office-based or opioid treatment program.

This is treatment nirvana!

Patients with near-fatal overdoses can be started on buprenorphine before they even leave the emergency department, and use the Bridge Clinic to link them with care.

This wonderful new idea has substantial evidence to show it works. D’Onofrio et al., [2] published results of a randomized study of patients with previously untreated opioid use disorder who presented to the emergency department. In one arm of the study, patients got treatment as usual, which was referral to treatment facilities. In the second arm, patients received brief intervention counseling and referral to care to an outpatient buprenorphine provider. In the third arm, patients were started on buprenorphine and linked directly with outpatient buprenorphine treatment, with no gap in treatment. In this last group, nearly 80% of patients followed up with buprenorphine treatment and had significantly less opioid use than patients in the other two arms.

For this reason, the Bridge Clinic wanted physicians who worked in the emergency department to get their waivers to prescribe buprenorphine, and accomplished this. When they see patients with opioid use disorder, they either do the induction onto buprenorphine in the ER, or send the patients home to do a home induction by providing a two-day pack of buprenorphine. Since the Bridge Clinic is open seven days a week, such patients can be seen quickly.

This is wonderful, since we know from studies that patients who are started on MAT while in the hospital or emergency department have much higher rates of treatment retention. We also know that higher treatment retention means fewer opioid overdose deaths.

Around half of the patients referred to the Bridge Clinic from the hospital or emergency department are seen within 24 hours of being referred.

The clinic endorses a harm-reduction model, and does not discharge patients for continued drug use. They staff attempt to build trust by offering services without attempting to control the patients’ intake of drugs. The patients are included in the plan of care. They have low no-show rates, and are aggressive at getting patients back in to treatment if they miss appointments.

The Bridge Clinic’s goal is to eventually transition care, after acute stabilization, to somewhere closer to where the patient lives. Sometimes this can be worked out easily, and sometimes there may be problems. Bridge Clinic staff attempt to work out these difficulties.

Some patients need the Bridge Clinic short-term, and others for longer. Their average length of stay is around three months. This program provides help to patients with ongoing drug use, homelessness, pregnancy with substance use disorders, chronic pain patients, and to patients leaving incarceration, eager to find help prior to a relapse.

I was so inspired by the description of this program. It was obvious that these women excelled at gaining the cooperation of their colleagues at their hospital and in the primary care practices. It really sounds like the ideal situation, with everyone working for the good of the patient, no matter what their needs are. There are no waiting lists, and no senseless obstacles for patients to surmount.

Every community needs a bridge clinic, I think. How wonderful that would be, with a warm and friendly place to send patients in crisis, open every day of the week. Patients could be assessed, stabilized, then referred to the best treatment program nearest to where they live.

However, North Carolina isn’t Massachusetts. We have a higher percentage of people with no health insurance, while Massachusetts has expanded Medicaid, which helps pay for this sort of treatment.

But at least we have a model for quick-access, low-barrier care for people in crisis with substance use disorders. If we can ever muster the cooperation and will for such a program, these people can teach us how to do it.

  1. Sordo et al., 2017, British Medical Journal
  2. D’Onofrio et al., Journal of the American Medical Association, 2015, Apr 28; 313(16): 1636-1644.
  3.  

Buprenorphine Prescribed in Two Settings

 

It’s very confusing. Even medical professionals get confused, so imagine how it is for patients.

I’m referring to the different setting where buprenorphine can be prescribed for the treatment of opioid use disorder.

Opioid treatment programs deliver care for patients with opioid use disorder in a much more structured setting. OTPs are regulated by sets of federal, state, and sometimes even local agencies. This limits flexibility when responding to changing patient needs, but provides a much more structured – some would say rigid – treatment setting.

OTPs must do observed, on-site dosing, with established protocols. Take home doses can be given, but patients must first meet a set of eight criteria. Some states, along with the federal agency, dropped the time-in-treatment requirement for buprenorphine, since it’s a safer medication than methadone.

Substance use disorder counseling is built in this system with stricter monitoring. OTPs must do a minimum set number of observed drug screens on patients. Opioid treatment centers offer a more intense, controlled, and hopefully more supportive setting for patients new to buprenorphine treatment, or who are struggling in treatment.

Office-based settings for treatment with buprenorphine aren’t nearly as regulated. Providers in office-based settings have more freedom to customize the treatment to the needs of the patient. The prescriber can decide how often the patient needs to be seen for follow up appointments and for substance use disorder counseling. Drug screen frequency and counseling intensity are left up to the prescriber. Some practices do observed urine drug screening, and some practices do not.

Opioid treatment programs are inspected by a number of state and federal agencies. Office based practices are not inspected at all, in most states. Other states, like Tennessee and Virginia, have more regulation around office-based practices, but overall, office-based practices vary more widely in quality and intensity than opioid treatment programs do.

So which setting is best? It depends on the needs of the patient.

As I said above, opioid treatment programs may be best for new patients, or those patients who use other substances besides opioids. Office-based programs may be better for stable patients because their treatment can be customized, allowing more freedom.

Ideally, office-based programs and opioid treatment programs should work together, collaboratively, to provide the best care to meet the needs of the patients. This idea of continuity of care happens with other chronic illnesses; patients with asthma may see a pulmonologist during a bad flare of illness, then resume care with a primary care provider after the expert has done everything an expert can do.

But with opioid use disorder, we aren’t there yet. I still sense a spirit of competition rather than cooperation between OTPs and OBOTs (office-based opioid treatment). It’s as if providers think to themselves, “There are only so many patients to go around, and if my patient transfers to that other practice, I will lose money.”

Believe me…there are plenty of patients to go around, unfortunately.

Providers who work at OTPs sometimes make unkind statements, saying OBOT providers are careless, poorly educated about opioid use disorder, and make bad decisions that lead to diversion of buprenorphine products into the black market. Then OBOT providers talk badly about OTPs, saying they are nothing but for-profit juice bars.

I’m as guilty as any – in my blog from last December, I made fun of an OBOT provider who used the cut and paste option of producing notes for office visits, leading to a statement about the patient being 8 months pregnant at each monthly visit for more than a year. (but that was a funny example, no?)

Somehow, we’ve got to start cooperating.

In my next blog, I’ll describe a type of treatment program that was set up to be a bridge between acute care in the hospital or emergency department, and treatment at both settings, OBOT and OTP. It’s inspiring me to be more collaborative and cooperative.

 

When the DEA Raids Buprenorphine Doctors

 

 

I had another blog post ready to go this week, but I’m postponing it to blog about another situation.

So far this year, two well-known and respected Addiction Medicine physicians have had their offices raided by the DEA.

The first one occurred in March of this year. Dr. Stuart Gitlow, the past president of ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine), who has a small buprenorphine (Suboxone and other name brands) practice in Woonsocket, Massachusetts, was raided by the DEA.

According to news reports, [1] the DEA raided his home and office, looking at patient records for evidence of wrongdoing. They wouldn’t tell him what they were looking for, and wouldn’t comment to reporters later because, they say, the raid was part of an ongoing investigation.

I searched the internet for some sort of follow up story, but found none.

Dr. Gitlow is an unlikely target for a DEA raid. He is so famous for his work in the field of Addiction Medicine that he has a Wikipedia page. According to that page, he is a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of addiction. He earned an MBA from University of Rhode Island, and went to Mt. Sinai School of Medicine where he earned his M.D. degree. He did a psychiatry residency at University of Pittsburgh, along with a Master’s degree in Public Health. Then he went to Harvard University for a forensic fellowship.

I’ve heard him give lectures at ASAM meetings and he’s as good as lecturers get. He teaches at the University of Florida, and he’s on the editorial board of the Journal of Addictive Diseases.

Dr. Gitlow confirmed in an interview that the DEA looked at patient records, but he had no idea what they were looking for.

Then in early May of this year, the offices of Dr. Tom Reach were raided by the DEA. Dr. Reach, like Dr. Gitlow, is an outspoken advocate of medication-assisted treatment.

A news article [2] described how Dr. Reach’s nine treatment centers were closed for the DEA inspection, disrupting patient care. Dr. Reach’s home was also raided. In the interview, he said he heard the DEA thought he was doing something wrong, but he had no idea what it could be.

They also looked for controlled substances, but Dr. Reach, like most buprenorphine physicians, has never stored these drugs on-site. The record keeping that is necessary for storing controlled substances is considerable. He doesn’t contract with public insurance, so it couldn’t be problem with that.

Dr. Reach said the DEA took hard drives and cell phones, making it harder to continue with patient care.

Dr. Reach was the past president of the Tennessee chapter of ASAM. Dr. Reach was one of several physicians who were on the expert panel convened last year to draft Tennessee’s new guidelines around physician prescribing of buprenorphine. He’s spent his own time at the Tennessee statehouse, advocating for patients with opioid use disorder and their physicians.

Thus far, no charges have been filed against either physician.

Both physicians are politically active. Dr. Gitlow ran unsuccessfully, twice, for state representative in Massachusetts, as a Democrat. Dr. Reach contributes money – some would say a large amount of money – to political candidates he supports. [3]

These two leaders in addiction medicine are far from the only doctors being raided. Dr. Larry Ley, who had several treatment programs in Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis, was ultimately acquitted of felony drug charges that he faced. Law enforcement personnel, posing as patients, lied about their need for opioid use disorder treatment. Dr. Ley was then charged when he issued prescriptions for Suboxone. [4]

I thought it was a felony to obtain a prescription for a controlled substance under false pretenses. How can a DEA agent pose as a patient and lie about their substance use history to obtain a prescription? Wouldn’t that be an illegal act? Maybe that’s why Dr. Ley was acquitted.

In this case, it seems the county’s head of drug task force didn’t agree with the idea of medication-assisted treatment, saying, ““This type of ruse of a clinic perpetuates the problem because people are still addicted to the drug, and this is what is happening,” said the head of the drug task force, in a press conference held after Ley’s arrest. “This is not fixing the problem.” [4]

Dr. Ley had to close his treatment centers, was left penniless due to legal fees, and is now suing both the city of Carmel and the DEA for conspiring to force him out of business.

Meanwhile, the opioid overdose death rate in Indiana has risen by double digits.

The DEA is authorized to inspect buprenorphine practices at any time. If you are a long-time reader of my blog, you’ll recall my office was inspected in late 2012. I wrote about the experience in a blog post on 12/16/12. The agents were pleasant and cordial. They were willing to meet with me when patients were not scheduled, so it didn’t interrupt my practice at all. They asked about how many patients I had, asked to see copies of patient prescriptions, and asked if I stored any controlled substances on site (of course not). The two agents were polite and cordial.

What happened to Drs. Reach and Gitlow was very different. They were both raided by the DEA, with a warrant that says material can be seized. In a raid, the DEA is so convinced that there’s criminal activity that they take computers, cell phone, and records. Inevitably this disrupts the medical treatment of patients. For both Dr. Reach and Dr. Gitlow, patients had to be turned away from scheduled appointments because of the raids. As Dr. Reach pointed out in a newspaper interview, this can have very real and possibly fatal outcomes for patients depending on buprenorphine to provide stability and keep them from using illicit opioids like heroin.

For a DEA raid to take place, investigators have expectations of finding criminal activities. They would not raid for issues like overprescribing, substandard care and the like. These types of problems would be handled by the state’s medical board.

Of course, I don’t know the circumstances that lead to these DEA raids. It’s remotely possible that a Harvard-educated physician leader of ASAM is slinging dope on some corner of Woonsocket, Massachusetts, in his free time…but I doubt it.

The trouble with these DEA raids is that while they make the papers when they happen, no news releases state what was found. If no wrongdoing was discovered in the masses of material seized by the DEA, the public won’t hear about this. All that remains is the taint of criminal investigation.

I’ve been working with some organizations to try to get more office-based physicians interested in treating patients with opioid use disorder with buprenorphine, a potentially life-saving medication. I’ve reassured worried doctors that they won’t become DEA targets just because they prescribe buprenorphine. I told them that unless they store medication on premises, the chances of getting raided are very small.

I hope I haven’t erred in telling new doctors this. I legitimately thought the nation’s leading health experts are pushing treatment for opioid use disorders, to stem the tide of opioid overdose deaths we’ve been having oer the past twenty years.

Now, with raids on well-respected practitioners, I don’t know what to think.

  1. http://www.woonsocketcall.com/news/city-doctor-s-home-office-raided-by-fbi/article_1e4270a0-2bb5-11e8-be84-b7f0c2501d63.html
  2. http://www.wjhl.com/local/dea-agents-raid-watauga-recovery-centers-in-tn-va-and-nc/1156361147
  3. http://doctorsofcourage.org/ralph-thomas-reach-md/
  4. https://www.thedailybeast.com/addiction-doctor-dea-shut-me-down-so-mayor-could-clean-up-town?ref=scroll