If you haven’t read CASA’s (Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, at Columbia University) masterpiece publication from June, 2012, titled “Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice,” you should do so. This publication can be downloaded for free, and has essential information about addiction and its treatment. http://www.casacolumbia.org/addiction-research/reports/addiction-medicine
Casa also has other free and informative publications about other issues, like how to reduce the risk of addiction in teens (“The Importance of Family Dinners” series), the cost and impact of untreated addiction on society (“Shoveling Up”), substance abuse and the U.S. prison population (“Behind Bars” series), and the availability of drugs on the internet ( “You’ve got Drugs” series). All of these contain useful and thought-provoking data.
“Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice” outlines all aspects of what is wrong with addiction treatment in the U.S., along with recommendations about how we can fix this broken system. When it was published in June of 2012, I thought it would be would be widely read and discussed. However, I’ve only heard it mentioned once, and that was at an ASAM meeting. I wish popular press, so eager to write sensationalistic pieces about addiction, would write more fact-based information.
Every politician should read it. Every parent should read it. Physicians and treatment center personnel should read it. Anyone who is concerned about the extent of addiction and its poor treatment in the U.S. should read it.
CASA describes their key findings of the drawbacks of the U.S. system – or non-system – of addiction treatment. This nation is doing many things wrong, to the detriment of people afflicted with addiction, their families and their communities. Our mistakes are based on ignorance, misperceptions, and prejudice. All of these impede our ability to help our people with addiction. The CASA report describes these factors and how they have contributed to our present situation.
Our nation hasn’t waged a war on drugs, but rather on people who use drugs.
The CASA report describes how public opinion about addiction isn’t based on science. Science proves addiction is a brain disease, yet this fact is still debated. We know that continued use of addicting substances alters the structure and function of the brain, affecting judgment and behavior about the continued use of drugs even when bad consequences occur. We know that half of the risk for developing addiction is determined by genetic makeup. Yet surveys show that about a third of U.S. citizens still feel addiction is due to lack of willpower and self-control. Why are public attitudes so disconnected from science?
Addiction is a complicated diagnosis, existing as it does at the end of the continuum from occasional drug use to regular use to compulsive use. People often compare a drug user with a drug addict. They say that since the drug user was able to stop when he wanted that the drug addict should be able to stop when he wanted. This compares apples to oranges. If someone can comfortably stop using drugs when given a good enough reason to do so, this person isn’t an addict. They may be a drug abuser, a problem user, and at high risk for addiction, but they haven’t crossed the line into uncontrollable use.
The CASA report pointed out that most addiction treatment and prevention isn’t done by physicians and health professionals. Most addiction treatment is provided by counselors who, for the most part, aren’t required to have any medical training. Only six states require a bachelor’s degree to become an addiction counselor, and only one (Alabama, go figure) requires a master’s degree.
Even when physicians are involved in the treatment of addiction, most of us have very little, if any, training in medical school or residencies about addiction prevention or treatment. Ironically, most of our training focuses on treating the consequences of addiction.
In medical school and residency, I spent countless hours learning about the proper treatment of cirrhosis, gastritis, anemia, pancreatitis, dementia, and peripheral neuropathy from alcohol addiction. I had little if any training about how to treat alcohol addiction, and none about how to prevent it.
We know brief interventions by physicians during office visits can reduce problem drinking and are an effective way to prevent problems before they occur. Yet few physicians are trained to do this brief intervention. Even if they are trained, primary care physicians and physician extenders are being asked to do more and more at each visit with patients, and asked to do it with less and less time. Primary care providers may not be adequately paid for screening and brief intervention for problem drinking and drugging, and valuable opportunities are lost. Yet that same patient may consume hundreds of thousands of healthcare dollars during only one hospital admission for medical consequences of problem alcohol use.
When I practiced in primary care, I often thought about how I never got to the root of the problem. I would – literally – give patients with serious addiction strikingly absurd advice. “Please stop injecting heroin. You got that heart valve infection from injecting heroin and you need to quit.” I could see it was ineffective, but I didn’t know any better way at the time. I assumed if there was a better way to treat addiction, I’d have learned about it in my training.
Wrong. The doctors who trained me couldn’t teach what they didn’t know themselves.
In my Internal Medicine residency, I admitted many patients to the hospital for endocarditis (infected heart valve) contracted from IV heroin use. Each time, this required six month of intravenous antibiotics. Back then we kept such patients in the hospital the whole time. You can imagine the cost of a six week hospital stay, not that these addicts had any money to pay. Just a fraction of that amount could have paid for treatment at a methadone clinic, the most effective way to treat heroin addiction, and prevent dozens of medical problems.
But I never referred them to the methadone clinic available in that city. I didn’t know anything about methadone or the medical-assisted treatment of opioid addiction, and apparently my attending physicians, responsible for my training, didn’t know about it either. It was a shame, because in those years, the late 1980’s, we were making new diagnoses of HIV almost daily among IV drug users. Since then, a study showed a patient using IV heroin drops his risk of contracting HIV by more than threefold if he enrolls in a methadone clinic.
I didn’t learn about the evidence-based treatment of opioid addiction until I agreed to work at a methadone clinic for a few days, covering for a friend of mine when he wanted to go on vacation. I was amazed to learn about decades of evidence showing the benefits of such treatment.
Most addiction-related medical expenses are paid for from public funds. In fact, over ten percent of all federal, state, and local government dollars are spent on risky substance use and addiction problems. Sadly, over 95% of this money is spent on the consequences of drug use and abuse. Only 2% is spent on treatment or prevention.
Untreated addiction costs mightily. People with untreated addiction incur more health care costs than nearly any other group. An estimated one third of all costs from inpatient medical treatment are related to substance abuse and addiction. Untreated addicts (I include alcohol addicts with drug addicts) go to the hospital more often, are admitted for longer than people without addiction, and require more expensive heath care than hospitalized non-addicts. The complications these people suffer could be from underlying poor physical health and lack of regular preventive healthcare, but most of the cost is incurred treating the medical problems directly caused by addiction and risky substance use.
Family members of people with untreated addiction have higher health costs, too. Families of people with addiction have 30% higher health care costs than families with no addicted member. I presume that’s from the stress of living and dealing with a loved one in active addiction. Often family members are so caught up in trying to control the chaos caused by active addiction that they don’t take time for routine health visits.
The costs of untreated addiction aren’t only financial. Addiction and risky drug use are the leading causes of preventable deaths in the U.S. Around 2.9 million people died in 2009, and well over a half million of these deaths were attributable to tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. Overdose deaths alone have increased five-fold since 1990.
We know addiction is a chronic disease, yet we spend far less on it than other chronic diseases.
For example, the CASA report says that in the U.S., around 26 million people have diabetes, and we spend nearly 44 billion dollars per year to treat these patients. Similarly, just over 19 million have cancer, and we spend over 87 billion for treatment of that disease. In the U.S., 27 million people have heart disease, and we spend 107 billion dollars on treatment.
But when it comes to addiction, we spend only 28 billion to treat the estimated 40.3 million people with addiction, and that includes nicotine!
Most of the money we do spend is paid by public insurance. For other chronic diseases, about 56% of medical expenses are covered by private payers, meaning private insurance or self-pay. But for addiction treatment, only 21% of expenses are paid from private insurance or self-pay. This suggests that private insurance companies aren’t adequately covering the expense of addiction treatment. Indeed, patients being treated with private insurance for addiction are three to six times less likely to get specialty addiction treatment than those with public insurance such as Medicaid or Medicare. Hopefully we will see a change since the parity law was passed. (which told insurance companies they had to cover mental health and substance addiction to the same degree they cover other health problems)
In the U.S., we don’t treat addiction as the public health problem that it is. Some people still don’t believe it’s an illness but rather a moral failing. Doctors, not knowing any better, often have an attitude of therapeutic nihilism, feeling that addiction treatment doesn’t work and it’s hopeless to try.
Families and medical professionals often expect addiction to behave like an acute illness. We may mistakenly think addiction should be resolved with a single treatment episode. If that episode fails, it means treatment is worthless. Families want to put their addicted loved one into a 28-day treatment program and expect them to be fixed forever when they get out. They’re disappointed and angry if their loved one relapses.
This reminds me of an elderly man I treated for high blood pressure many years ago. I gave him a month’s prescription of blood pressure medication, and when he came back, his blood pressure was good. I was pleased, and I wanted to keep him on the medication. He was angry. He said he was going to find another doctor. He thought the one prescription should have cured his high blood pressure so that he would never have to take pills again, and was disappointed with my treatment.
If we keep our same attitude toward addiction treatment, we are doomed to be as disappointed as my patient with high blood pressure. Addiction behaves like a chronic disease, with period of remission and episodes of relapse.
We have a lot of work to do. As this CASA publication shows, we have to change public attitudes with scientific information and do a much better job of training physicians and other health care providers. We should pay for evidence-based, high-quality addiction treatment, rather than spend billions on the medical problems caused by addiction as we are now doing.
Check out this landmark publication at CASA’s website: http://www.casacolumbia.org