Archive for the ‘Doctors Behaving Badly’ Category

Shady Signs and the Corporate Practice of Medicine

Roadside Suboxone Advertisement

 

The roadsides of rural North Carolina have become littered with these signs advertising access to Suboxone prescriptions.

When I first saw one of these signs, I was appalled. These signs, more commonly used to advertise homes for sale or dating services, exude tackiness, when used to advertise for medical care. They are called “bandit” signs, for their often unauthorized use. As far as I can tell, these particular signs don’t violate any laws, when placed in the public road right-of-way, but they do seem dodgy. Their 1-800 number and the mention of “microloans” smacks of unprofessionalism to a degree rarely seen in medicine, even in these days. It reminds me of the more outrageous signage of the South Florida pain clinic scourge five or ten years ago.

 

South Florida pain management sign

One shady buprenorphine prescriber casts shade on all other prescribers. These signs make me feel embarrassed to be a doctor who prescribes buprenorphine, because the general public will lump all of us together.

I also felt embarrassed for my patients who take this medication for opioid use disorders. In fact, not long after I saw that first sign, one of my long-term patients, in relapse-free recovery for more than eight years, told me she felt mortified when she and her husband saw a similar sign while driving. She has had a spectacularly successful recovery, yet when her husband saw the roadside sign, he started criticizing her again for “still” being on that medication.

Out of curiosity, I went to the website advertised on the sign.

It’s scary.

They advertise a “mobile medical unit” that will “utilize church parking lots as much as possible,” for privacy reasons. The website says the clinic is staffed by a physician assistant and no medications are dispensed on site. Prescriptions for twenty-eight days will be called in and patients seen by telemedicine. (I assume this meant patients could get counseling via telemedicine.) Twenty-eight cities are highlighted on a NC map on the website, so presumably these are the target areas. The price listed for this monthly visit from a mobile medical unit was about twice what I charge my buprenorphine patients for a routine office visit, so it’s not cheap.

I suspect this business is not going to be owned or operated by a physician, though I could be wrong about that. From the way the content on the website is written, I can almost guarantee no one with medical training had a role in its composition.

This may be its downfall, since NC’s corporate practice of medicine act states that non-physicians aren’t allowed to own medical practices or employ physicians. This means that physicians employed by non-physicians are subject to sanction from the NC medical board.

Let us take a moment to go down this interesting rabbit hole known as the Corporate Practice of Medicine Act, or CPOM.

This antiquated law was a bit of legislation passed many decades ago, when lawmakers had the quaint and rather touching idea that physicians should be the only people to own and operate medical services, since they are the only people trained to know what’s best for the patient.

How can this law still exist, you ask, since about half of doctors’ offices are owned by hospital corporations? Because the medical board doesn’t enforce CPOM law for practices owned by non-profit entities, or for practices owned by hospitals. The medical board’s reasoning is that these hospital corporations, many of them for-profit, are likely to have the patient’s best interests at heart and therefore not be likely to make decisions based on profits alone, unlike other for-profit, non-doctor-owned entities. To me, that seems a bit arbitrary, but I’m not privy to their discussions on the matter.

Ten years or so ago, I quit working for a non-profit opioid treatment program to work for a for-profit OTP. Worried about the CPOM law, I called one of the NC medical board’s lawyers, to ask for information about the legalities of doing this. The board lawyer told me that if anyone reported a doctor for working for a for-profit, non-hospital agency, the medical board would “take action.” I tried to ask about specifics, and told him most of the opioid treatment programs in our state and in most states aren’t physician-owned. I asked if all of those programs were in violation. He kept saying that if they were reported, action would be taken.

He recommended I hire a lawyer who could give me specific legal advice, saying that since he worked for the medical board, he couldn’t give specific advice to the people whose licensure is controlled by that board. He gave me the name of a lawyer in private practice who used to work for the medical board and would be knowledgeable about these laws.

I called this lawyer and explained my situation and asked him how much it would cost to have him figure this out for me. To his credit, this lawyer gave me what felt like good information. He said I shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to figure this out.

He said that since opioid treatment programs are ordered by law to have a physician as medical director, this puts them in direct opposition to the corporate practice of medicine act, and that this was an example of two laws contradicting each other. He said something to the effect that a medical facility that’s so closely regulated by the state can’t be outlawed by the state. This made sense. He said this needed to be figured out at a much higher level than me. He said it was an issue that needed to be worked out between the NC medical board and the state opioid treatment authority.

I liked that answer, since I wasn’t eager to shell out big bucks to hire an attorney. I contacted people at the state opioid treatment authority, and also the board lawyer to tell them what this attorney had said. Then I quit worrying about CPOM since, since this issue was too big for me to take on.

I doubt the issue has been resolved, because I still hear rumblings about how some opioid treatment programs are in violation of the CPOM. All I can say is that this is NOT a new topic, but it is a complicated one.

OK….. let’s pop our head back out of the rabbit hole, and talk about possible positives of having road signs advertising buprenorphine prescriptions.

Maybe the signage I find appalling is a means to harm reduction. We have mobile syringe exchange units, so why not mobile buprenorphine units? Far too many patients are dying of opioid overdose, so maybe roadside advertising is a novel way to reach people at risk for dying from this disease of opioid use disorder. Maybe we need to accept a little tacky advertising in the name of saving lives.

I don’t know – I know I don’t have all the answers. But I question the harm reduction motives of this particular business, based on how much they are charging, and their offer of “microloans.”

I hope somewhere in this business model there’s a conscientious physician tasked with overseeing quality of care. I hope that physician is truly involved, and not just providing a signature on a form every three months.

 

 

Physicians’ Writing Contest

Why cats are not doctors

 

The following post is a bit of writing I did for a doctors’ magazine writing contest. The topic was about finding work-life balance. I didn’t win, but I did get honorable mention. The magazine still offered to publish my piece, but I decided to put it on my own blog instead:

Opportunities for Work-Life Balance

Every Sunday evening, a blanket of gloom shrouded me as I contemplated my upcoming work week. I felt trapped by my work contract, my financial obligations, and my family’s expectations. I couldn’t envision how I could change my life.

In reality, I was the only person who could make changes.

My inability to enjoy work baffled me. I’d finally achieved what I worked for through college, medical school, and residency. I was a board-certified physician of Internal Medicine, well-trained, and prepared to care for patients in a rural practice setting.

This was in the early 1990’s, and in my area, hospitalists didn’t exist. I saw patients in the office by day, at the hospital by night, and squeezed in a dozen or so nursing home patients during free time. I worked around seventy hours per week as I raced down the road to burnout.

During those years, I was a thirsty person trying to drink from a fire hose. It was good stuff, but too much for me.

Then I developed a medical issue, which in retrospect could have been avoided or mitigated by a less stressful work situation. I took a few years off work to regain my health. What at first felt like a personal health disaster eventually became my opportunity to re-organize my life into a full and happy existence, with time to enjoy everything I love. This included taking care of sick patients.

During my two-year hiatus, I missed being a physician. Though I now had an identity outside of medicine, I missed patient interactions and the intellectual challenges. I wanted to return to work, but in new circumstances.

Initially, I thought the solution was to work part-time. That helped, but though I was well-rested, I was dissatisfied with primary care practice. That’s not where my heart was.

I networked with other physician friends, scoured the internet for different practice settings, and became involved with a physician support group near me. I kept an open mind and considered areas outside of mainstream medicine: occupational medicine, working for insurance companies and drug companies, and doing locum tenens work. I considered new areas like forensic medicine, and considered going back to complete a different residency. I made thoughtful decisions based on my research.

Eventually I found my niche in Addiction Medicine, after I agreed to work for a physician friend who was the medical director of an addiction medicine facility.

I thought I would enjoy doing admission histories and physicals on patients entering residential care, but gradually I was drawn to the treatment of opioid use disorder with medications such as naltrexone, buprenorphine, and methadone. I knew next to nothing about this area of medicine, and was amazed to learn the results of sixty years of research that support this treatment.

I got additional training and eventually became certified in Addiction Medicine, now a recognized medical specialty by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Now, I look forward to my work days. I constantly face new challenges, I get paid reasonably well, and I feel like I’m helping not only my patients, but also their families and the community. I feel like I do more good in one day than I did in a month at my Internal Medicine practice, where I treated the sequellae of addiction, but never the cause.

I love the company I work for, and they respect my judgment and support my medical decisions. I work as much as I want for this company, and have time for my own small office-based buprenorphine practice.

I feel blessed to have found my niche, but I also had to do some foot work to get to this point. Here are my suggestions for physicians who want to make changes in their work environments:

  1. Decide what parts of your work makes you happy, and what parts are not so enjoyable. Use your imagination and try to picture what your perfect job would look like. You may not recognize your perfect work opportunity unless you have an idea of what it looks like.
  2.  Keep an open mind and investigate niches of medicine you haven’t considered. Consider working for a locum tenens company as a way to get paid while you investigate different aspects of medicine.
  3. Adjust your financial priorities. If you want to work fewer hours, you may need to jettison some life luxuries. You can make trade -offs. If you want a vacation home on the beach and a big boat, you may need to work more hours than a physician who is content with a cabin in the woods.
  4. Don’t get discouraged by false starts. More than one practice setting failed to work out for me in the long term. I considered that all part of the learning process.
  5. Remember the lessons you learn and try not to repeat mistakes.Several years after I found an enjoyable work situation, leadership changed. I was told that I needed to see more patients, and that my usual pace of six patients per hour was too slow.I recognized this practice was no longer a good fit for me. By this time, I knew my limits, and knew I wouldn’t be happy trying to meet new expectations. I told my physician employer that I planned to move on, and that he should start looking for my replacement. I told him that I didn’t have the temperament for what he needed in a physician, and wished him well. We parted on amicable terms, and I found a place that fit me much better only a few months later.
  6.  Expect to feel some fear. Life changes are risky, but we are talking about reasonable, calculated risks. Decide how much risk you can tolerate, and proceed accordingly. For example, if financial insecurity would ruin your peace of mind, don’t quit your present job until you find a new one.
  7. Don’t allow your identity to be completely defined as a physician. As good as it can feel to be a physician, remember it’s only a portion of who we are. It’s also essential to cultivate our identities as parents, husbands, wives, and the dozens of other things important to us. That way, we aren’t as dependent on work for our sense of well-being. Particularly in this uncertain age of medicine, we must be grounded in other areas of our lives.

Physicians have more control over our lifestyles than we believe. We may feel stuck, trapped in situations we don’t like, but in truth, mos of us have the financial and emotional resources to change our lives into something better. We have survived rigorous training, and have skills to continue to change.

Trying something new is uncomfortable and scary, and sometimes doesn’t work out. But if you feel like I felt – that cold blanket of dismay over your shoulders every Sunday evening –doing nothing, staying stuck – that’s the much bigger risk.

Risk Factors for Long-term Opioid Use


The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention published an important article in their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on March 17, 2017, titled, “Characteristics of Initial Prescription Episodes and Likelihood of Long-Term Opioid Use – U.S., 2006-2015.”

You can read the article here: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6610a1.htm

To summarize for my readers, this article describes a study from a very large pool of patients. This study, felt to represent the U.S. population with commercial health insurance, was done on patients with records in IMS Lfelink+database. With nearly 1.3 million subjects, this was a large study, giving it power to detect even small differences.

The study included patients over age 18 who received at least one opioid prescription during the time frame of June 1, 2006 through September 1, 2015. To be included, the patient had to have been free of opioid prescriptions for at least six months prior to receiving an initial opioid prescription. This patient pool was followed over time, to see what risk factors were associated with continued opioid prescriptions. The patient left the study if they de-enrolled from their insurance, or when the patient went for more than 180 days without any opioid prescriptions, or when the study ended.

Patients with cancer were excluded, as were patients with a substance abuse disorder, and patients who were prescribed buprenorphine for the treatment of substance use disorder, since those patients could be expected to have opioid prescriptions lasting longer than patients without those diagnoses.

The duration and dose of the first prescriptions were examined to see which patient or treatment factors were associated with longer opioid use and ongoing opioid prescriptions.

Out of all of the 1.3 million patients, 2.6% continued on opioids for more than one year. These patients were more likely to be female, have a pain diagnosis prior to the first opioid prescription, be older, and have public insurance such as Medicaid or Medicare. They also tended to be started on higher doses of opioids compared to the patients who used opioids for less than one year.

Of all of the patients who were prescribed opioids, 70% were prescribed opioids for seven or fewer days. Only around 7% were prescribed opioids for more than a month. The rest of the patients were prescribed opioids for one to four weeks.

Of the people initially prescribed seven or fewer days of opioids, only around 6% were still on opioids a year later. But 13% of the patients with an initial opioid prescription for eight or more days were still on opioids a year later. Actually, at around the fifth day, the study showed the biggest spike in likelihood of chronic opioid use. For patients with an initial opioid use episode of more than a month, around 30% were still prescribed opioids a year later.

The amount of opioid prescribed influenced risk of continued opioid use. Authors of the study found that a cumulative dose of more than 700 morphine-milligram equivalents were several times more likely to become chronic opioid prescription users than those patients prescribed less than this amount.

The study looked at regional differences too. Of the patients who continued prescription opioid use for more than three years, 38% lived in the South. Only 19% lived in the East, and Midwestern patient accounted for 31% of users of opioids for more three years. Western patients accounted for around 9% of these patients, and the rest couldn’t be classified as to area of the country for some reason.

I doubt this regional variation is from differences in medical issues of the patients. I suspect these differences are due to physician prescribing practices. I could be wrong. The study authors didn’t elaborate on this data. Maybe doctors in the South are getting it right, and doctors in other areas are undertreating pain. However, many southern states have high opioid use disorder rates, and high opioid overdose death rates. And relative to the entire world, the U.S. takes more than its share of opioid medications, as shown in the graph at the beginning of this blog.

Of course, this study doesn’t show cause and effect, just an association. Longer initial opioid prescriptions are associated with continuation of opioid prescriptions for more than a year; however, perhaps the conditions being treated in that group of patients were more severe.

This study looked to see if there was an association between which opioid was prescribed and the risk of long-term opioid use. Patients given prescriptions of long-acting opioids were more likely to have long-term use. That’s no unexpected, but the second most likely medication to be associated with long term use was tramadol.

Tramadol is still mistaken thought by many physicians to be a benign pain medication, unlikely to cause physical dependence or substance use disorder. But in this study, more than 64% of patients who were started on tramadol were still taking some sort of opioid one year later.

As an aside, I’ve seen a fair number of patients present for treatment of their opioid use disorder who used tramadol, usually with other opioids. And some of the worst withdrawals I’ve seen have been with tramadol, with high fevers along with other more typical opioid withdrawal symptoms.

This study’s authors recommended limiting the initial opioid prescription to less than seven days when possible, to reduce the risk of continued opioid prescription and use. Since their data found that a second opioid prescription roughly doubled the patient’s risk of being on opioids for more than a year, the authors also recommended serious consideration of the second prescription.

This study makes intuitive sense. It showed that the longer the number of days of the initial prescription, the greater than risk of the patient still being on opioids one year later.

But what surprised me was the degree of increased risk, even with only a second prescription, and even with only more than seven days prescribed.

Readers may ask, what’s the big deal about being on opioids for more than one year? That doesn’t necessarily mean the patient has opioid use disorder. That is correct, and this study isn’t saying these patients who became chronic users of opioid pain medication developed opioid use disorder.

However, as the authors say in their summary, previous research does show an increased risk for harm in patients on long-term opioid therapy.

In view of our current opioid overdose death problem, it would seem prudent to limit risk to patients. We can use this information, and be cautious about prescribing more than seven days of opioids. We (physicians) should carefully consider whether to give second opioid prescriptions, and be more cautious about prescribing tramadol and long-acting opioids.

Medical Board Action Against Telemedicine Buprenorphine Physician

Telemedicine

 

 

 

Telemedicine is all the rage these days. For medically underserved areas, telemedicine could help reduce physician shortages and provide care to people without medical specialists in their area.

As appealing as the idea may be, physicians must be careful to conform to their states’ medical board regulations.

Of course, buprenorphine can now be prescribed in the office setting to treat opioid use disorders. Even with the increased prescribing capacity DATA 2000 gave us, less than a quarter of people who need treatment for opioid use disorder receive it. In fact, modifications to DATA 2000, passed last year, allow buprenorphine prescribers to have up to 275 patients at a time, if they fulfil various criteria. Also, physician extenders can now get certification to prescribe buprenorphine after taking proper training.

But what about telemedicine? Can it be used to meet the demand for opioid use disorder treatment in underserved areas? We now have clearer guidance, thanks to a recent ruling by the NC Medical Board.

Here’s the condensed story:

A physician, who lived and practiced in the middle of the state, also prescribed Suboxone via telemedicine for patients in the Western part of the state. The medical board was displeased this physician didn’t examine his patients in this second location in person, prior to initiating the Suboxone. The physician stated he felt buprenorphine could be prescribed safely without an in-person exam, but the board didn’t agree.

The medical board faulted the physician for not giving adequate attention to patients’ use of other drugs, and their mental health history. The board said patients were not examined for track marks or withdrawal signs, and that the physician accelerated their doses too quickly. Patients were seen every four weeks from the start, and the medical board opined that was not frequent enough in early treatment.

In other words, there were clearly other issues besides the lack of initial face-to-face contact, but this lack was cited as a departure from the standard of care.

I’ve been contacted by at least a half dozen mental health agencies who wanted to hire me to start treating patients with opioid use disorder with buprenorphine, using telemedicine. I’ve turned them all down, mainly because it wasn’t good medical care, and also because I didn’t want to do anything to violate medical board’s telemedicine policy. They have had published guidelines surrounding telemedicine since 2010, and update it periodically. You can read it here: http://www.ncmedboard.org/resources-information/professional-resources/laws-rules-position-statements/position-statements/telemedicine

You will note that the policy says “This evaluation need not be in-person if the licensee employs technology sufficient to accurately diagnose and treat the patient…”

So it is a little confusing, in view of their recent ruling against a doctor prescribing buprenorphine.

In September of 2016, another Addiction Medicine physician got a public letter of concern from the NC Medical Board, for using the telephone to stay in contact with a patient who had moved out of state. I only know the circumstances of the case from what the medical board listed in their public letter of concern, but I do know the physician. He is well-trained, cautious, and has excellent judgment.

His patient of over three years moved out of state and couldn’t find a new buprenorphine prescriber. So his NC doctor agreed to continue to prescribe for him, and did phone sessions with this patient every two weeks for thirty minutes at a time. He issued buprenorphine prescriptions for only two weeks at a time. This happened over several years without a face-to-face visit. Apparently the physician enlisted the aid of a local pharmacist to do medication counts, and the medical board opined this was “insufficient.”

Wow. This ruling should give every physician a reason to avoid telemedicine. Because I think that doctor did a good thing. Every patient should have such a doctor, willing to go the extra mile to help. I don’t think the physician’s actions were “insufficient” in any regard, though I’ll admit I’m probably not what our NC medical board considers an expert.

I’ve used pharmacists to do pill counts for me if the patient says he is out of town when called for a pill count. Sounds like I’m going to have to stop doing that, given the medical board’s statement.

At least once at an opioid treatment program, I was pressured to admit patients using telemedicine.

Several years ago, I had surgery for a broken leg. At the time, I worked for two opioid treatment programs. One was located an hour away, and the other was two hours away. Driving was going to be cumbersome, of course.

As soon as I was able, I called the program managers of each to let them know I might be out of work for the next week or two. At the first OTP, the program manager said I should take all the time I needed, and intakes could be postponed. Obviously, this is not an ideal situation, since we want to admit patients as soon as possible, but this was one of those things that were out of our control. I was still available by phone, of course.

At the second, the program manager said being out of work for several weeks was “not acceptable.” The program manager pushed me to admit patients via Skype or other technology. I refused, citing quality of care issues. In retrospect, I made the right decision.

I hear about “Doctor on Demand,” advertised by Dr. Phil on his show, and I wonder how these doctors get around this telemedicine issue. These doctors aren’t examining patients face to face on the first visit. Also, to practice medicine in NC, you must have a NC license, and surely all these doctors don’t have NC licenses.

I sent an email to Doctor on Demand asking about these issues. They sent me an email back, saying someone would be in contact with me. This was about four weeks ago and I haven’t heard anything else. I’ll let you know what they say in the unlikely event that they do contact me.

In the meantime, I think all physicians, and specifically buprenorphine prescribers, need to be very careful with telemedicine. Given these two recent rulings by the NC Medical Board, we could be cited for improper medical practice. Telemedicine seems like it could be a wonderful way to get care to people with opioid use disorders who live in remote places, but physicians need to protect their medical licenses first, or we won’t be able to prescribe anything to anybody.

 

 

Journal Errors

aaaaaaaamis

 

 

Each morning before getting ready for work, I try to read at least part of a medical journal. Usually I read tediously boring things about diabetes, hypertension, and the like. However, recently, with the overall increased focus on opioid use disorder, I’ve noted more articles about this issue.

Sometimes, the authors don’t get it exactly right. I suppose to some doctors, treatment of opioid use disorders is as boring and confusing as I find diabetes treatment to be. But then, I don’t write about diabetes. I do think if you are writing for a medical journal, you ought to take care to be accurate.

Last week I read Internal Medicine News. This is not a pre-eminent journal. It does not have the reputation of the New England Journal of Medicine, or the Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, it is what we commonly call a “throw-away” journal. It’s really more of a newspaper, a summary of other medical journals, that a publisher of original studies. For that reason, it’s a more informal publication.

While I understand all of that, I was chagrined when I read a short article titled “Interdisciplinary approach to opioid withdrawal can aid successful long-term recovery.” In this article, the author names three medications that can be used to “wean patients off opioids:” naloxone, buprenorphine, and acamprosate.

Huh? Surely that’s got to be an error. Maybe the editor cut out some text essential to accurate understanding. You know I love to write letters to tell people when they are wrong, so I emailed the following letter to the journal’s editor:

Dear Sirs:

I read some information on page 18 of the November 1, 2016, issue of the Internal Medicine News that I feel needs to be clarified. Likely due to space limitations, Dr. Lorenzo Norris M.D. may have given the wrong impression about medications used to treat patients with opioid use disorder.

Dr. Norris mentions naloxone, buprenorphine, and acamprosate as medications that can be used to “wean a patient from opioids.”

In fact, naloxone is an opioid antagonist, and though it can be life-saving in the face of an opioid overdose, it should not be used to wean patients from opioids. As an antagonist with a high affinity for the mu opioid receptor, it would precipitate immediate and severe opioid withdrawal. Therefore, naloxone is not recommended to wean a patient. However, the related opioid antagonist naltrexone can be used after a patient is through acute opioid withdrawal, to help prevent a relapse to opioid use. It can be used in either daily oral formulation or the depot monthly intramuscular injection.

Acamprosate, while approved for use in patients after undergoing alcohol withdrawal, has no indication for use in patients with opioid use disorder.

The third drug, buprenorphine, can be used to wean a patient off opioids, but multiple studies have shown extremely high relapse rates when it is used in this manner. Buprenorphine gives much better results (lower incidence of opioid-positive urine drug screens, lower risk of use of illicit opioids, reduced risk of death) – when used as a maintenance medication.

Giving Dr. Norris the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure he would have elaborated on buprenorphine for maintenance treatment of opioid use disorder, had space permitted. However, this is such an important concept that I feel it deserves elaboration.

Thank you for your coverage of this critical issue.

Sincerely,

Jana Burson M.D.

Maybe I’m being too picky. Maybe the editor will think I’m being a know-it-all smarty pants. After all, at least this publication is trying to cover opioid use disorder treatment, which is a wonderful thing.

I don’t know. If we give out information, let’s make sure it is correct, given the depth of misunderstanding that already abounds in the field of Addiction Medicine.

I’ll let you know if I get any reply.

Diagnostic Overshadowing

aadiagnostic-shadowing

 

 

I was trying to get through a pile of non-Addiction Medicine journals when I came across an article titled “The Ethics of Behavioral Health Information Technology: Frequent Flyer Icons and Implicit Bias,” in the October 18th, 2016, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

 

According to the authors, Michelle Joy M.D. et al, at least one electronic medical record (EMR) system provides a way to display an icon shaped like an airplane, as a way to inform treating physicians that the patient is a “frequent flyer.” This term has long been used to describe patients who repeatedly come to emergency departments or other providers on a regular basis.

This term has been used for decades. I’ve used it myself in the past. It’s a short-hand phrase that usually means, “This patient is a pain in the ass because he/she keeps coming back for inappropriate reasons.” More elegantly and succinctly, the authors of this article say the term frequent flier is short-hand for “problem patient.”

This article points out the ethical harms of stigmatizing patients in this manner, and presents the term “diagnostic overshadowing.” This means a physician’s attitude towards a patient can be skewed by the idea that the patient is seeking care for inappropriate reasons. The article goes on to cite studies showing patients with mental health conditions are less likely to get appropriate medical care compared to patients without mental health issues, likely due to this diagnostic overshadowing.

I see this every week in my patients with opioid use disorder. Even my patients who are in recovery and doing well say they are treated differently when they go to our local hospital emergency departments, or even to their primary care doctors. After they reveal they’re on buprenorphine or methadone to treat opioid use disorder, they detect changes in the attitudes of their care providers.

Often, the patient will say, “I know I’ve tried to score drugs from him before, but this time I didn’t get a chance to say anything before the doctor accused me of being a drug seeker.” The doctor, reading the past records, jumped to the conclusions that this person is only in the emergency department to get pain pills. The doctor shuts down further communication because of his diagnostic overshadowing. The patient doesn’t get a chance to receive appropriate care. Maybe just as bad, that patient is given the message that they don’t deserve respect, due to their diagnosis of opioid use disorder.

If this happens to patients years after they’ve been in recovery, just think about what happens to people in active opioid use disorder. They are pre-judged as drug seekers, and the emergency department doctors sometimes decide, before gathering information, that the addicted person has no valid medical problems. The doctor starts with an assumption that the patient is a bad person, rather than a sick person.

This attitude leads to medical disasters. Patients with current intravenous drug use are more likely, not less likely, to have serious medical problems.

I’ve seen two patients who had serious infectious medical emergencies that were missed by local emergency room doctors. Both patients were seen multiple times at two local hospital emergency departments. Both said they were treated with distain by personnel. One was seen a total of four times before she went, on her own, to the emergency department of a nearby teaching hospital, where she was immediately diagnosed, and taken for emergency surgery.

I believe these two patients encountered doctors who experienced the diagnostic overshadowing described in the JAMA article, because they had opioid use disorders. Their doctors assumed they only wanted pain pill prescriptions and weren’t all that sick.

What do we do about diagnostic overshadowing?

We must educate physicians more completely about addiction and mental health disorders. I’ve written in previous blog posts about the lack of training, at least in the past, for physicians about substance use disorders. Specific training in medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorders wasn’t taught at all. This is slowly changing, and medical schools now teach students about these vital medical problems. This will help younger physicians, who are getting their training now.

What about older doctors, already in practice? I think all of us working in substance use disorder and mental health disorder fields have an obligation to educate our peers. I know I held significant bias against methadone before I knew anything about it. One doctor friend encouraged me to read and learn. When I did, I found piles of information supporting this evidence-based treatment.

Now I try to pass along what I’ve learned. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes not. I’ve talked to doctors in my community, with a wide range of results. Some physicians have become allies, supportive of the patients we share. Others have not been willing to listen or learn about MAT. One doctor told me if I prescribe MAT for one of his patients, he will dismiss that patient from their practice.

The only difference between this doctor and me was in our willingness to learn. Had I not agreed to read some of the tons of studies showing that methadone helps patients with opioid use disorder, I’d still be opposed to methadone, as he continues to be. It’s a reminder to remain teachable.

It’s easy to become frustrated with my colleagues. For example, I can’t remember even one patient being referred to our opioid treatment program by the local hospital’s emergency department physicians. I have not been successful at educating these doctors.

Up until this last month, we didn’t get referrals from our local substance abuse and mental health treatment provider for the county. One patient specifically asked them to refer her to a methadone clinic, and was told, “We don’t do that.” Fortunately, she had friends who told her where to find our treatment center.

Our program manager, nurse manager, and I met with the treatment program’s supervisors, who said they had no idea their facility was trying to prevent patients from accessing opioid treatment programs. They promised to fix the situation.

Thankfully, something changed, and we just got our first few referrals from this program over the last two weeks. I see this as a tremendous success of advocacy, though it took our program manager quite some time to get through to their management.

In a blog earlier this year, I described how the local detox center wants to provide Intensive Outpatient Program for our patients on methadone and buprenorphine. That’s a collaboration I didn’t think would ever happen, yet in a few weeks I hear their program will be ready for our patients.

So things do change, but not quickly. All of us advocating for MAT need to be patient, yet persistent. Maybe then we can eliminate diagnostic overshadowing for our patient populations.

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaadia

Black Box Warning

black coffin

 

 

Last month the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) announced their decision to require black box warnings on opioid and benzodiazepine prescribing information. This warning will state that co-prescribing these two classes of medications increases the risks to patients of death, coma, sleepiness, and respiratory depression. The FDA also said they would require medication guides for patients, describing these risks.

Black box warnings are the strongest warnings issued by the FDA. These warnings are literally placed in a bold black box at the top of the prescribing, where the information is most noticeable.

I applaud the FDA’s action. I think FDA’s statement will make physicians and other providers think twice before blithely writing a benzodiazepine prescription for a patient already prescribed opioids. A black box means, “Take this seriously!”

Ten years ago, co-prescribing of opioids and benzodiazepines was commonplace for primary care physicians in my area. Earlier this year, our state medical board announced they would investigate the top prescribers of opioids and benzodiazepines together. Since then, I have noticed some prescribers appear to be backing away from the routine prescribing of benzodiazepines..

Most opioid treatment centers have policies in place to address benzodiazepine use, both licit and illicit. There are still a few OTPs who approve benzodiazepines to be prescribed for methadone or buprenorphine patients, but I think they are in the minority. Most opioid treatment program physicians feel that besides the dangers of sedation and overdose, there are few medical indications for long-term (more than three months) benzodiazepine prescriptions, and much better long-term treatments for anxiety disorders.

An article In the April 16th, 2016 issue of the American Journal of Public Health underlined how important it is to evaluate benzodiazepine prescribing in the U.S., particularly when prescribed along with opioids. [1]

The authors begin the article by stating that benzodiazepines were found to be involved in nearly a third of opioid overdose deaths in 2013. The authors wished to investigate nation trends in benzodiazepine prescribing and in fatal overdoses involving benzodiazepines.

The authors found the percentage of U.S. adults filling benzodiazepine prescriptions increased significantly over past years. They also found that among people who filled benzodiazepine prescriptions, the amount, defined as lorazepam equivalent doses, also increased significantly. Simultaneously, overdose deaths rates involving benzodiazepines rose nearly four-fold, though deaths appear to have plateaued since 2010.

Another study, this time in Canada, evaluated the risk of death in polysubstance users. In a prospective cohort study of IV drug users, done from 1996 through 2013, benzodiazepine use was more strongly associated with death than any other substance of abuse. [2

Many patients ask why they can’t take benzodiazepines while on methadone or buprenorphine. I tell them I’m mainly worried about the increased risk for overdose death, but I also tell them benzodiazepines are over-prescribed. Prescribing information suggests benzodiazepines are most beneficial when prescribed for no more than three or four weeks. Long-term prescribing of benzodiazepines is generally discouraged, due to serious side effects seen even in patients with no substance use disorders.

Benzodiazepines are associated with increased risk of auto accidents, increased risk of completed suicide, worsening of mood disorders like depression, increased risk of drug-induced dementia, and increased risk of daytime fatigue. Benzodiazepines are also associated with increased risk of cancer, falls, and pneumonia.

Although an association of benzodiazepines with these conditions doesn’t necessarily mean benzodiazepines cause these conditions, it’s a good reason to be conservative when prescribing benzodiazepines and other sedatives, pending further studies.

Sedative medications including benzos can make undiagnosed sleep apnea worse, even to the point of causing death. Obesity increases the risk of sleep apnea, and with more adults becoming obese, the risks of benzodiazepines in such patients may be overlooked.

As for my patients, many of whom are prescribed methadone or buprenorphine, the risk of drug interaction and overdose with the hypnotics usually outweighs all of the benefits, and I recommend that patients do not mix these two types of medications.

  1. Bachhuber et. al., “Increasing Benzodiazepine Prescription and Overdose Mortality in the Unites States, 1996-2013,” American Journal of Public Health, April 16, 2016.
  2. Walton et. al., “The Impact of Benzodiazepine Use on Mortality Among Polysubstance Users in Vancouver, Canada,” Public Health Rep., 2016 May-June;13(3)491-9.