Archive for the ‘drug diversion’ Category

Safe Storage of Medication

aaalockbox

Please please PLEASE, patients on opioid treatment programs, store your medication safely.

Of course, the vast majority of patients in opioid treatment programs, dosing with methadone or buprenorphine, store their medication safely and never have any medication storage issues.
The public never hears about these people, who calmly go about their daily lives as productive members of society.

But one incident of a pediatric overdose on medication prescribed for a patient in an opioid treatment program threatens the reputations of treatment programs and their patients. Each time a pediatric overdose occurs due to improper storage of medication, people who oppose opioid treatment programs get new ammunition to say patients should never be allowed any take home doses.

By the way, this information about safe storage of medication applies to opioids prescribed for pain and other controlled substances. Anyone prescribed any medication should store it safely.

So let’s review what should be done to keep medication safe and out of the hands of people for whom it isn’t prescribed, including children.
1. Store your medication in a lock box that is locked. It does no good to have a lock box if you leave the key in the lock. The key must be stored in another place. Otherwise, it’s just a box.
2. Unless you’ve been directed to split your dose, take your medication all at one time. The seal on the bottle is there for a reason. Once the seal is broken, all of the medication is meant to be taken at once. This gives less chance for part of your dose to be ingested by accident or on purpose by another person.
I know patients like to take a little bit of their dose at a time, multiple times during the day. That’s a pattern leftover from active addiction with short-acting opioids. Each time an addict takes something, it gives a feeling of benefit.
But the unique pharmacology of both methadone and buprenorphine means patients can take the entire dose once daily and feel the same as if they take multiple doses. In fact, with buprenorphine, some people in the early studies did OK with every other day dosing.
Some patients are fast metabolizers of methadone and have to have split dosing. We can determine who needs split dosing with careful dose titration and peak and trough blood levels when needed. Then the dose can be split precisely, in individual bottles.
3. Plan for the unexpected. People who don’t have children living in the home often get complacent about medication storage. But what about when friends or family visit? You may not remember to remove your medication bottles or unlocked box from plain site. It’s best to stay in the habit of storing your medication, in a locked box, out of sight and reach.
4. Children are driven by curiosity. If medication is stored where kids can get into it, overdose is more likely. Don’t underestimate a child’s capacity to get into things.
5. Be careful with your empty bottles. Patients are instructed to drink their methadone dose, and then put a little water in it to rinse any residual and drink that too. It’s possible a small amount of medication could still be in the bottle. That’s one reason we ask you to store empties in the lock box, too.
6. Don’t let your child be any part of your daily medication administration. Kids naturally like to imitate their parents. Take doses of all medications in private, out of their view. Of course, don’t let your kids play with or handle your empty bottles.
7. Your take home bottles should spend all their time in the lock box. That’s their home. That’s where they live. The only time they leave the lock box is for the few moments it takes to consume your day’s dose, and afterward the bottle goes right back in to the lockbox. It makes me nuts to see patients transporting empty bottles in their coat pockets and purses.
8. Don’t tell other people what medications you are on. Addicts in active addiction can do desperate things like break into your house and steal medication.
9. If your medication does get stolen, call the police right away. That way, if someone overdoses and dies from the medication dispensed to you, you have a record of doing all you can to report that it’s fallen into the wrong hands.
10. If the worse thing happens and a child or other person takes your medication, call 911 right away. You will lose take home medications, but it’s still the right thing to do. Remember that methadone and buprenorphine cause a peak effect anywhere from two to five hours later. Just because you don’t see any problems in the child for the first hour does NOT mean the child is safe. Don’t take any chances.
11. If you or a member of your household takes opioids either by prescription or illicitly, get a naloxone kit. Keep it in your house so that if an overdose happens, it can be reversed quickly. You can read more about naloxone kits on my blog post on April 27, 2013. You still need to call 911, because naloxone’s effects wear off much faster than methadone or buprenorphine.

Lastly, and it’s self-serving for me to say so, but store your take home doses safely for your doctor’s sake. That take home dose with my name on it is a vote of confidence that you will be careful about how you store your medication. It’s always a judgment call, and sometimes I get it wrong. I am affected when bad things happen with diverted or improperly stored take home doses that I’ve prescribed. Plus, I become more cautious when considering patients for take home doses. Medication-assisted patients complain about overly restrictive regulations around take home doses of medication, particularly methadone, but cases of pediatric overdose make those regulations necessary.

However, I try to remember that the vast majority of medication-assisted patients store their medication correctly and never have any incidents of accidental pediatric ingestion or any other misuse of medication. They’re responsible and careful. For every episode of carelessness leading to a pediatric overdose, hundreds of patients never have an episode with improper storage. It’s not fair to paint them with the same brush.

New Opioids

I’ve blogged about states that have passed new laws addressing the prescribing of opioids, but the manufacturers of prescription opioids medications also have made changes to help reduce the potential for medication misuse. Of course, opioids will never be misuse-proof, but at least it’s a little harder to misuse some of the newer ones.

Oxecta is a new immediate-release brand of the drug oxycodone. It’s formulated so that it breaks into chunks when crushed, instead of a powder. When it’s mixed with water, it forms a gel so that it can’t be injected. This pill contains sodium laurel sulfate, a substance that irritates the nose if snorted.

Lazanda is a new delivery form of a very potent opioid, fentanyl. This brand is designed to be used as a nasal spray, which I would expect to be very addictive. The preparation itself has no anti-abuse features, but in order to distribute, dispense, prescribe, or be prescribed this medication, parties have to sign an agreement and be enrolled with the drug company. This extra scrutiny is hoped to deter diversion by distributor, pharmacy, doctor, or patient. Physicians must take a training program specific for this brand, and be enrolled with the drug company as a prescriber, or pharmacies can’t dispense to the patient.

Patients also need to complete a patient-prescriber agreement. Many people (like me) think doctors aren’t likely to jump through these extra hoops to prescribe this particular brand, when other brands of the same medication are already on the market, though not in the form of nasal spray.

Remoxy, another brand of oxycodone, hasn’t yet been FDA approved. Supposedly, it’s resistant to injection or snorting, and also has been formulated to be resistant to alcohol extraction.

Drug companies are now required by the FDA to have plans to evaluate and mitigate the risks associated with the opioid drugs they manufacture, particularly if they make sustained release or long-acting opioid preparations. This cooperation by drug manufacturers is a necessary part of turning the tide of opioid addiction in this country.

Last year, Purdue Pharma re-formulated OxyContin, making it more difficult to crush to snort or inject.  I noticed a sudden drop-off in patients entering treatment for pain pill addiction who said OxyContin was their drug of choice. During the years 2002 through 2007, nearly all of the opioid addicts I admitted to treatment said OxyContin was their preferred drug. It became obvious that the re-formulation made a big difference.

Addicts can and will still abuse these medications orally to get high, but the new formulations really do reduce abuse by making pills less likely to be snorted or injected.

Drug Tests for Patients on Suboxone or Methadone

“Why do I have to do a drug screen? Don’t you trust me?”

Lately a few of my Suboxone patients seem to be questioning the need for drug screens. Some of them resent the tests, and resent paying for them.

So why do I do drug tests?

  • It’s good medical practice. Like many chronic illnesses, relapses happen. It’s better to detect these as early as possible, to discuss what happened, and if/how we need to change their treatment. If a patient has relapsed to opioids, it may mean that I need to increase the dose of Suboxone, if they were still able to feel an opioid high. If the relapse was to other drugs, it usually means we need to increase the “dose” of addiction counseling.
  • There’s a gold mine of information in relapses. I ask my patient what happened immediately before the relapse. Was she around people who were using drugs? Did she use drugs to try to get rid of an unpleasant emotion? Did she use drugs because she became complacent? The answers can help decide how best to avoid relapses in the future. If a patient is fortunate enough to live through a relapse, she can get information she can’t get any other way.
  • Drug screening benefits the patient by giving them accountability. Some patients are less likely to relapse with accountability. I’ve had patients say that the thought of having to talk about a relapse is enough to keep them from using drugs. This surprises me, but I’m glad.
  • Drug screening also shows them I’m serious about their recovery. I’m not just going through the motions of writing a prescription and getting paid for the visit. I really want my patients to recover and get their lives back.
  • Patients in treatment don’t always tell me when they’ve relapsed. In order for addiction to thrive, lies must be told. Otherwise honest people sometimes tell outrageous lies while they are in the throes of addiction. I see this as part of the disease. It’s not about them. It’s not about me. It’s the addiction.
  • I’m not a human lie detector. In the past, I smugly thought I could tell if someone had relapsed, so drug screens just confirmed what I already knew. After more experience, I know that’s not true.
  • It’s the standard of care. Even if the other reasons aren’t compelling enough to do drug screens, the vaguely increased regulatory oversight of doctors who prescribe Suboxone should induce them do drug screens. I know if my charts are ever audited by the DEA (unlikely), my state’s department of health and human services, or my state’s medical board (more likely), I want to show I’m doing things in the proper manner.
  • I don’t want to prescribe medications that will be diverted to the black market. Some doctors say, with some justification, that buprenorphine is a safer drug than most other illicit opioids, and we should look at black market diversion of buprenorphine as a form of harm reduction. However, governmental types don’t see things that way. The DEA certainly doesn’t. I don’t want to prescribe buprenorphine to people with the criminal intent of selling part or all of it. When I do urine drug screening, if there’s no buprenorphine present, that’s a serious matter. If the patient isn’t using what I prescribe, it’s likely they are selling it. Since such diversion of Suboxone endangers the whole program, it’s essential to stop prescribing for people who sell their medication.

These are my reasons for drug screening. Since I’m not going to stop doing them, addicts who object to screening have had to find new doctors. New opioid addicts who come to my office are told, both verbally and in writing, that I do drug screening. They can make their own decision about whether they want to see me as their doctor or go elsewhere.

Dosing Methadone for Pain versus Addiction

Using methadone for pain is different from using methadone for addiction.

It’s illegal in the United States for a doctor to prescribe methadone for the purposes of treating addiction, unless she is working at an appropriately licensed Opioid Treatment Center. Some doctors don’t know this, and have had grumpy DEA agents pay them a visit. However, it is legal for a doctor to prescribe methadone for pain, as long as she has an appropriate DEA license.

Methadone is prescribed differently when treating pain than when treating addiction. This is because each dose of methadone has an analgesic (anti-pain) effect of about six hours. However, methadone’s opioid blocking effect lasts for twenty-four hours or more. This is why methadone for pain should be dosed multiple times per day, but methadone for addiction can be given once per day.

The dose of methadone often varies, too, depending on the disease being treated. Doses of methadone 10 to 20mg, dosed three to four times per day, are adequate to treat pain for many patients. When treating addiction, studies have shown that patients do better when the doses are high enough to block other opioids. Usually, this occurs at doses 80 – 120mg per day, given as one dose. The patient doesn’t become sleepy or sedated at this dose because the dose is raised gradually, allowing time for tolerance to build to the sedating effect.

Some patients prefer to stay at a low methadone dose, so they can still feel intoxication from illicit opioids like heroin or oxycodone. For example, one patient told me he liked keeping his dose around 60mg, which was high enough to stave off the worst of his withdrawal symptoms. But it was also low enough to allow him to feel high from an injection of heroin in the evenings. He resisted going up on his dose as recommended by his treatment team.

Doctors have to be very careful prescribing methadone for pain. The very characteristic of the drug that makes it effective to treat addiction, its long duration of action, also makes it dangerous to prescribe. Too many patients, experimenting with methadone for the purpose of getting high, die of a drug overdose. Tolerance to the euphoric effect of methadone develops more quickly than the tolerance to the sedative effects. People consume a fatal dose before feeling high.

Over the last decade, the incidence of overdose deaths from methadone rose sharply. Most of these deaths were from people taking methadone pills, dispensed from local pharmacies, and prescribed by doctors who were treating patients for pain. Along the way, many milligrams were diverted to the black market, with disastrous results. Some methadone was diverted from opioid treatment centers, but appears to be a fraction of the total.

Given the overdose potential of methadone, it should be used cautiously when prescribed by physicians for pain. Soon, doctors may be required to take a training course before they can prescribe the long-acting opioids. This training will educate doctors on how to recognize if a patient is developing the complication of addiction, and to identify evidence of drug diversion.

Smuggling Suboxone

I was intrigued by an article I saw on my internet homepage. It was titled: “When Children’s Scribbles Hide a Prison Drug”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/us/27smuggle.html?_r=1&hpw

 This article describes unique ways Suboxone is being smuggled into jails. Law enforcement officials associated with both state and county jails from Maine and Massachusetts were interviewed. They say prisoners and their accomplices make Suboxone into a paste and smear it over the surfaces of papers sent to prisoners from their families. The article mentions the paste being spread over children’s coloring book pages, and under stamps. Suboxone films have been placed behind stamps or in envelope seams. Correctional officers now have to inspect material coming in the mail to prisoners much more closely.

 I had several thoughts. First, yet again, I’m struck by the creativity and cleverness of addicts. If only they could channel this energy in the right direction, amazingly good things could come to them, instead of the continued hardships brought by addiction.

 Then I felt sad that such actions described in the article would taint the reputation of a medication that has the potential to save lives, when used appropriately. Such illicit use of Suboxone gives ammunition to those who would prefer that office-based treatment with Suboxone didn’t exist.

 Then I wondered, how many of these prisoners have a legitimate prescription for Suboxone, but are denied their medication by prison officials? How many are legitimate patients of methadone clinics, also denied their medication while imprisoned, who know that Suboxone will alleviate some of the opioid withdrawal they are feeling? How many of these people are addicted to opioids, not in any kind of treatment, but who know Suboxone will treat their withdrawals?

At least one study supports the idea that many people use Suboxone illicitly not to get high, but to prevent withdrawal. Dr. Schuman-Olivier studied 78 opioid addicts entering treatment. Nearly half said they had used Suboxone illicitly prior to entering treatment. Of these people, 90% said they used to prevent withdrawal symptoms. These addicts also said they used Suboxone illicitly to treat pain and to ease depression.

Many law enforcement personnel and members of the legal community have strong biases against medication-assisted treatments. They don’t understand that addiction is a disease, and that methadone and buprenorphine are legitimate, evidence-based treatments. They have difficulty letting go of their idea that addiction is a choice that deserves blame, and have a punitive stance towards addicts. They have low opinions of addicts who are using drugs, but often have no better opinion of a recovering addict who has sought treatment and is doing well on replacement medications, like methadone or buprenorphine.

 But no matter what law enforcement personnel think they know, when they deny prescribed, life-saving medications, I believe they’re practicing medicine without a license.

The article mentions one woman who, with the aid of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, sued because her Suboxone treatment had not been continued while she was in jailed for a traffic violation. She settled out of court, but her lawyer made the excellent point that if inmates are denied their medications, they will try unlawful means to get it.

Other patients and their families have brought successful lawsuits against the jail facilities. In at least two cases, in the same Orange County, Florida jail, patient/prisoners were allowed to go through withdrawal for so long that they died. The estate of one person won a three million dollar judgment against the county. (1, 2)

I’m glad to see these lawsuits. I’ve heard appalling stories from many methadone patients, who were denied their medication while incarcerated. I’ve heard tales of jailers taunting these prisoners, when they became sick. There is no defense for such cruelty.

Orange County now works with local methadone clinics. If a prisoner is a current patient of a clinic, his clinic will send a week’s worth of medication in a locked box via courier. Nurses at the jail have the key to the box, and administer each day’s dose. The jail doctor consults with the medical director at the methadone clinic. Prisoners still have to pay out of pocket to get the medication, so the only cost to the jail is the time required for personnel to administer the medication. It’s certainly much cheaper than paying three million to the estate of a dead prisoner, not to mention much more humane.

I wish the county jails around the methadone clinic where I work would approach the problem of opioid addiction and treatment in a collaborative way. Sadly, only seven state prison systems offer medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine.

Rikers Island, in New York City, gives us another example of how such a system could work. There, opioid-addicted prisoners charged with misdemeanors or low grade felonies can be enrolled in a program known as KEEP (Key Extended Entry Program). This program treats opioid addicts with methadone and counseling. Upon release from Rikers Island, these patients are referred to methadone treatment centers in the community. Seventy-six percent have followed through with their treatment, post-release. The results of this program show significant reduction in reincarceration and significant reduction in criminal activity. (3)

Drug courts trying to save money would be well-advised to look at the Rikers Island program. Studies have shown a cost savings of at least four dollars for every one dollar spent on methadone treatment. This money is saved because methadone patients require fewer days of hospitalization and other healthcare costs, and also because of reduction in criminal activity and incarceration costs. (3, 4)

I know from comments written to this blog that there are many more people abusing Suboxone than I previously imagined. For sure, some of the prisoners getting smuggled Suboxone are misusing it. But I don’t think the majority are using for anything other than prevention of withdrawal, since they are usually not offered any other effective treatment for this medical condition.

  1. “Outrageous: the death of Susan Bennett raises serious questions about the competence and quality of the jail’s nursing staff” Orlando Sentinel, editorial, March 27, 1998.
  2. Doris Bloodsworth, “Inmate begged for methadone” Orlando Sentinel July 12, 2001.
  3. Par`rino, Mark, “Methadone Treatment in Jail,” American Jails, Vol: 14, 2000, issue 2, pp 9-12.
  4. California Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, 2004, California drug and alcohol treatment assessment (CALDATA) California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment (CALDATA), 1991-1993 [Computer File]. ICPSR02295-v2. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2008-10-07. doi:10.3886/ICPSR02295

 

So Long Soma

Soma, a well-known brand name of the drug carisoprodol, is prescribed by doctors in the U.S. as a muscle relaxant. However, it does have the potential to cause addiction. Soma is now a Schedule III or Schedule IV controlled substance in about twenty states, and the DEA may soon make it a Schedule IV drug in all states. Carisoprodol has been removed from the market in other nations, due to its potential for addiction.

 All potentially addicting drugs are scheduled, meaning the physician has to have a DEA number to legally prescribe them. Non-scheduled drugs (antibiotics, antidepressants, blood pressure or diabetes medication) aren’t addicting, and the doctor doesn’t need a DEA number to prescribe these. They aren’t tracked by the DEA. Drugs are scheduled I through V, depending on the potential for addiction and the degree of therapeutic usefulness. Schedule I drugs have very high potential for addiction, and very little therapeutic use. Other medications are more beneficial with less risk of addiction. Heroin and Ecstasy are two examples of Schedule I drugs. At the other extreme, Schedule V drugs have some risk of addiction, though fairly low. Examples are low-dose codeine and other low-dose opioids.

 I hate Soma. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a prescription for it. I see too many people who have become addicted to it, or who use it with opioids. There are other better and safer muscle relaxants.

Soma gets metabolized to meprobamate, an old-timey barbiturate. Doctors used barbiturates as sedatives before the safer benzodiazepines came on the market.

 Some addicts say they like the high that they get when they mix Soma with opioids. Since I treat opioid addicts, I see the dangers of mixing Soma with maintenance medications like methadone and buprenorphine. Just like benzodiazepines, Soma has a synergistic effect with opioids, causing more sedation than expected. This is how it can kill. The user takes opioids with Soma, it turns into a barbiturate, and the combination puts the person into a deep sleep. In fact, this combination can make them sleep so deeply that the respiratory center of the brain, which tells us to breathe when we sleep, turns off. The person stops breathing, and without oxygen, vital organs like the brain and heart die, and the person never wakes up.

 At the recent ASAM conference in Washington, D.C., one presenter reminded us of how addicting carisoprodol can be: in one study, around 65% of patients with a personal history of a substance use disorder misused carisoprodol when it was prescribed to them for over three months. And even worse, only 18% of the prescribing doctors knew that this medication is metabolized to meprobamate. (1)

 If you have a history of any sort of addiction disorder and your doctor is prescribing Soma, talk to her. It’s likely that another safer and more effective medication can be found. Soma is only FDA approved for two or three weeks of continuous use, anyway.

  1. Reeves, RR; Carter, S; Pinkofsky, HB; Struve, FA; Bennett, DM; “Carisoprodol (Soma) Abuse Potential and Physician Unawareness; Journal of Addictive Diseases, Vol. 18 (2), 1999, pp 51-56.

Doctors Are Poorly Trained About Addiction and Recovery

Addiction? What addiction?

Most medical schools and residency programs place little emphasis on educating future physicians about addiction. A survey conducted by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) revealed that physicians are poorly trained to recognize and treat addictive disorders. (1)

CASA surveyed nine-hundred and seventy-nine U.S. physicians, from all age groups, practice settings, and specialties. Only nineteen percent of these physicians said they had been trained in medical school to identify diversion of prescribed drugs. Diversion means that the drug was not taken by the patient for whom it was prescribed. Almost forty percent had been trained to identify prescription drug abuse or addiction, but of those, most received only a few hours of training during four years of medical school. More shocking, only fifty-five percent of the surveyed doctors said they were taught how to prescribe controlled drugs. Of those, most had less than a few hours of training. This survey indicates that medical schools need to critically evaluate their teaching priorities.  

Distressingly, my own experience mirrors this study’s findings. My medical school, Ohio State University, did a better job than most. We had a classroom section about alcoholism, and were asked to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, to become familiar with how meetings work. But I don’t remember any instruction about how to prescribe controlled substances or how to identify drug diversion.

Is it possible that I’ve forgotten I had such a course? Well, yes. But if I can still remember the tediously boring Krebs cycle, then surely I would have remembered something juicier and more practical, like how to prescribe potentially addicting drugs. Similarly, less than half of the surveyed doctors recalled any training in medical school in the management of pain, and of those that did, most had less than a few hours of training.

Residency training programs did a little better. Of the surveyed doctors, thirty-nine percent received training on how to identify drug diversion, and sixty-one percent received training on identifying prescription drug addiction. Seventy percent of the doctors surveyed said they received instruction on how to prescribe controlled substances. (1)

This last finding is appalling, because it means that thirty percent of doctors received no training on how to prescribe controlled substances in their residency programs.  Could it be true that nearly a third of the doctors leaving residency – last stop for most doctors before being loosed upon the populace to practice medicine with little to no oversight – had no training on how to prescribe these potentially dangerous drugs? Sixty-two percent leaving residency had training on pain management. This means the remaining thirty-eight percent had no training on the treatment of pain.

Could it be that many of these physicians were in residencies or specialties that had no need to prescribe such drugs? No. The participating doctors were in family practice, internal medicine, OB/GYN, psychiatry, and orthopedic surgery. The study included physicians of all ages (fifty-three percent were under age fifty), all races (though a majority at seventy-five percent were white, three other races were represented), and all types of locations (thirty-seven percent urban, thirty percent suburban, with the remainder small towns or rural areas). This study reveals a hard truth: medical training programs in the U.S. are doing a poor job of teaching future doctors about two diseases that causes much disability and suffering: pain and addiction. (1)

 I remember how poorly we treated patients addicted to prescription medications when I was in my Internal Medicine residency program. By the time we identified a person as addicted to opioids or benzodiazepines, their disease was fairly well established. It didn’t take a genius to detect addiction. They were the patients with thick charts, in the emergency room frequently, loudly proclaiming their pain and demanding to be medicated. Overall, the residents were angry and disgusted with such people, and treated them with thinly veiled contempt. We regarded them more as criminals than patients. We mimicked the attitudes of our attending physicians. Sadly, I did no better than the rest of my group, and often made jokes at the expense of patients who were suffering in a way and to a degree I was unable to perceive. I had a tightly closed mind and made assumptions that these were bad people, wasting my time.

Heroin addicts were not well treated. I recall a discussion with our attending physician concerning an intravenous heroin user, re-admitted to the hospital. Six months earlier, he was hospitalized for treatment of endocarditis (infected heart valve). Ultimately his aortic heart valve was removed and replaced with a mechanical valve. He recovered and left the hospital, but returned several months later, with an infected mechanical valve, because he had continued to inject heroin. We discussed the ethics of refusing to replace the valve a second time, because we felt it was futile.

I didn’t know any better at the time. We could have started him on methadone in the hospital, stabilized his cravings, and then referred him to the methadone clinic when he left the hospital. Instead, I think we had a social worker ask him if he wanted to go away somewhere for treatment, he said no, and that was the end of that. Small wonder he continued to use heroin.

At a minimum, the attending physician should have known that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, and that it is treatable. The attending physician should have known how to treat heroin addiction, and how to convey this information to the residents he taught. Instead, we were debating whether to treat a man whose care we had mismanaged. Fortunately, he did get a second heart valve and was able to leave the hospital. I have no further knowledge of his outcome.

 Despite having relatively little training in indentifying and treating prescription pill addiction, physicians tend to be overly confident in their abilities to detect such addictions. CASA found that eighty percent of the surveyed physicians felt they were qualified to identify both drug abuse and addiction. However, in a 1998 CASA study, Under the Rug: Substance Abuse and the Mature Woman, physicians were given a case history of a 68 year old woman, with symptoms of prescription drug addiction. Only one percent of the surveyed physicians presented substance abuse as a possible diagnosis.  In a similar study, when presented with a case history suggestive of an addictive disorder, only six percent of primary care physicians listed substance abuse as a possible diagnosis. (2)

Besides being poorly educated about treatments for patients with addiction, most doctors aren’t comfortable having frank discussions about a patient’s drug misuse or addiction. Most physicians fear they will provoke anger or shame in their patients. Physicians may feel disgust with addicted patients and find them unpleasant, demanding, or even frightening. Conversely, doctors can feel too embarrassed to ask seemingly “nice” people about addiction. In a CASA study titled, Missed Opportunity, forty-seven percent of physicians in primary care said it was difficult to discuss prescription drug addiction and abuse with their patients, for whom they had prescribed such drugs. (2).

From this data, it’s clear physicians are poorly educated about the disease of addiction at the level of medical school and residency. Even when they do diagnose addiction, are they aware of the treatment facilities in their area? Patients should be referred to treatment centers who can manage their addictions. If patients are addicted to opioids, medications like methadone and buprenorphine can be a tremendous help.

  1. Missed Opportunity: A National Survey of Primary Care Physicians and Patients on Substance Abuse, Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, April 2000. Also available online at http://www.casacolumbia.org

2. Under the Rug: Substance Abuse and the Mature Woman, Center on Addiction and

Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 1998. Available online at http://www.casacolumbia.org

Description of Methadone Patients

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book, titled, “Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope.” In this chapter I’m describing the patients I saw at methadone clinics where I worked in the years 2001 through 2009.

 I was surprised how casually people shared controlled substances with one another. As a physician, it seems like a big deal to me if somebody takes a schedule II or schedule III controlled substance that wasn’t prescribed for them, but the addicts I interviewed swapped these pills with little apprehension or trepidation. Taking pain pills to get through the day’s work seemed to have become part of the culture in some areas. Sharing these pills with friends and family members who had pain was acceptable to people in these communities.

In the past, most of the public service announcements and other efforts to prevent and reduce drug use focused on street drugs. Many people seemed to think this meant marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. The patients I saw didn’t consider prescription pills bought on the street as street drugs. They saw this as a completely different thing, and occasionally spoke derisively about addicts using “hard drugs.” Most addicts didn’t understand the power of the drugs they were taking.

 Some opioid addicts came for help as couples. One of them, through the closeness of romance, transmitted the addiction like an infectious disease to their partner. Most were boyfriend/girlfriend, but some were married. The non-addicted partner’s motives to begin using drugs seemed to be mixed. Some started using out of curiosity, but others started using drugs to please their partner. I was disturbed to see that some of the women accepted the inevitability of addiction for themselves as the cost of being in a relationship with an addicted boyfriend. Often, addicted couples socialized with other addicted couples, as if opioid addiction bound them like a common fondness for bowling or dancing. Addiction became a bizarre thread, woven through the fabric of social networks.

 We saw extended family networks in treatment for pain pill addiction at the methadone clinics. One addicted member of a family came for help, and after their life improved, the rest of the addicted family came for treatment too. It was common to have a husband and wife both in treatment, and perhaps two generations of family members, including aunts, uncles, and cousins. Many addicts who entered treatment saw people they knew from the addicted culture of their area, and sometimes old disputes would be reignite, requiring action from clinic staff. Sometimes ex-spouses and ex-lovers would have to be assigned different hours to dose at the clinic, to prevent conflict.

 When the non-profit methadone clinic where I worked began accepting Medicaid as payment for treatment, we immediately saw much sicker people. Over all, Medicaid patients have more mental and physical health issues. Co-existing mental health issues make addiction more difficult to treat, and these patients were at higher risk for adverse effects of methadone. However, data does show that these sicker patients can benefit the most from treatment.

 When I started to work for a for-profit clinic, I saw a slightly different patient population. I saw more middle class patients, with pink and white-collar jobs. Occasionally, we treated business professionals. The daily cost of methadone was actually a little cheaper at the for-profit clinic, at three hundred dollars per month, as compared to the non-profit clinic, at three hundred and thirty dollars per month. However, the for-profit clinic charged a seventy dollar one-time admission fee, to cover the costs of blood tests for hepatitis, liver and kidney function, blood electrolytes, and a screening test for syphilis. The non-profit clinic had no admission fee, but only did blood testing for syphilis. I believe the seventy dollars entry fee was enough to prevent admission of poorer patients, who had a difficult enough time paying eleven dollars for their first and all subsequent days.

The patients at the for-profit clinic seemed a little more stable. Maybe they hadn’t progressed as far into their disease of addiction, or maybe they had better social support for their recovery. This clinic didn’t accept Medicaid, which discouraged sicker patients with this type of health coverage. Both clinics were reaching opioid addicts; they just served slightly different populations of addicts. The non-profit clinic accepted sicker patients, which is noble, but it made for a more chaotic clinic setting. This was compounded by a management style that was, in a few of their eight clinics, more relaxed.

 For the seven years I worked for a non-profit opioid treatment center, I watched it expand from one main city clinic, and one satellite in a nearby small town, to eight separate clinic sites. The treatment center did this because they began to have large numbers of patients who drove long distances for treatment. This indicated a need for a clinic to be located in the areas where these patients lived. Most of this expansion occurred over the years 2002 through 2006.

 Three of these clinics were located in somewhat suburban areas, within a forty-five minute drive from the main clinic, located in a large Southern city. The other four clinics were in small towns drawing patients from mostly rural areas. One clinic was located in a small mountain town that was home to a modest-sized college. Nearly all of the heroin addicts I saw in the rural clinics were students at that college. But by 2008, we began to see more rural heroin addicts, who had switched from prescription pain pills to heroin, due to the rising costs of pills.

Within a few years, clinics near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina were swamped with opioid addicts requesting admission to the methadone clinics. These clinics soon had many more patients than the urban clinic.

I saw racial dissimilarities at the clinic sites. In the city, we admitted a fair number of African Americans and other minorities to our program. Most of them weren’t using pain pills, but heroin. I don’t know why this was the case. Perhaps minorities didn’t have doctors as eager to prescribe opioids for their chronic pain conditions, or perhaps they didn’t go to doctors for their pain as frequently as whites. If they were addicted to pain pills, maybe distrust kept them from entering the methadone clinic. In the rural clinics, I could count the number of African-American patients on one hand. They were definitely underrepresented. The minorities we did treat responded to treatment just as well.

A recent study of physicians’ prescribing habits suggested a disturbing possibility for the racial differences I saw in opioid addiction. (1) This article showed statistically significant differences in the rate of opioid prescriptions for whites, compared to non-whites, in the emergency department setting. Despite an overall rise in rates of the prescription of opioid pain medication in the emergency department setting between 1993 and 2005, whites still received opioid prescriptions more frequently than did Black, Asian, or Hispanic races, for pain from the same medical conditions. In thirty-one percent of emergency room visits for painful conditions, whites received opioids, compared to only twenty-three percent of visits by Blacks, twenty-eight percent for Asians, and twenty-four percent for Hispanic patients. These patients were seen for the same painful medical condition. The prescribing differences were even more pronounced as the intensity of the pain increased, and were most pronounced for the conditions of back pain, headache, and abdominal pain. Blacks had the lowest rates of receiving opioid prescriptions of all races.

This study could have been influenced by other factors. For example, perhaps non-whites request opioid medications at a lower rate than whites. Even so, given the known disparities in health care for whites, versus non-whites in other areas of medicine, it would appear patient ethnicity influences physicians’ prescribing habits for opioids. The disparities and relative physician reluctance to prescribe opioids for minorities may reduce their risk of developing opioid addiction, though at the unacceptably high cost of under treatment of pain.

Interestingly, we had pockets of Asian patients in several clinics. We admitted one member of the Asian community into treatment, and after they improved, began to see other addicted members of their extended family arrive at the clinic for treatment. Usually the Asian patients either smoked opium or dissolved it in hot water to make a tea and drank it. When I tried to inquire how much they were using each day, in order to try to quantify their tolerance, the patient would put his or her thumb about a centimeter from the end of the little finger and essentially say, “this much.” Having no idea of the purity of their opium, this gave me no meaningful idea of their tolerance, so we started with cautiously low doses.

One middle aged patient from the Hmong tribe presented to the clinic and when I asked when and why he started opioid use, in broken English and with difficulty, he told me he had lost eight children during the Vietnam War, and was injured himself. After the pain from his injury had resolved, he still felt pain from the loss of his family and he decided to continue the use of opium to treat the pain of his heart, as he worded it. I thought about how similar his history was to the patients of the U.S. and how they often started using opioids and other drugs to dull the pain of significant loss and sorrow. I thought about how people of differing ethnicities are similar, when dealing with addiction, pain, and grief.

1. Pletcher M MD, MPH, Kertesz, MD, MS, et. al., “Trends in Opioid Prescribing by Race/Ethnicity for Patients Seeking Care in US Emergency Departments,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 2008 vol. 299 (1) pp 70-78.

The New OxyContin Formulation

Over the last three weeks, at least five of the opioid addicts I’ve admitted to treatment said they wanted help because they couldn’t abuse the new form of OxyContin.

 And I say: Hallelujah! It’s about time!!

 This new tablet, approved by the FDA in April of this year, appeared recently on the black markets of this area, replacing the older, more easily abused OxyContin. The new tablet is bioequivalent to the older tablet, meaning the same amount of oxycodone, the active ingredient, is available to the body when swallowed whole, as it’s meant to be. In other words, the same amount of pain reliever is given to the body. However, it’s more difficult to crush for the purpose of snorting or injecting, because it turns into a gummy ball.

Purdue Pharma, the drug company that makes OxyContin, admits this new formulation isn’t abuse-proof, but hopes it will be more resistant to abuse.

The patients I’ve talked to say the new tablet is a big disappointment. One patient, who usually chews her pill to get a faster high, said it was like trying to chew a jelly bean. Other patients said they could crush the tablet, but got a kind of gelatinous mess that was impossible to snort or inject.

 For pain relief, the opioid in OxyContin lasts much longer when it’s taken as directed and swallowed whole. Addicts prefer to crush and snort or inject because of the quick high they feel with this route of administration. But when used in this way, it leaves the body faster, and the addict usually needs to find more opioid within six to eight hours to avoid withdrawal.

Before I applaud Purdue Pharma for this change, my cynical mind asks a few questions: Why didn’t the company make this change earlier?

In 2002, a Purdue Pharma representative testified before congress, saying that the company was working on a re-formulation of OxyContin, to make it harder to use intravenously. This representative said they expected to have the re-formulated pill on the market within a few years. (1)  But it took eight more years.

Sterling, the drug company that makes Talwin, another opioid pain medication, was able to re-formulate their drug within a few years when they discovered it was being abused frequently. This was in the 1980s, when, presumably, medication technology wasn’t as advanced as today. Sterling added naloxone, an opioid blocker that’s inactive when taken by mouth, but puts an addict into withdrawal when it’s crushed and injected. It worked great. Talwin isn’t a commonly abused drug.

 I’m assuming that Purdue Pharma holds the patent for this new formulation that makes their tablet gummy when crushed. Purdue probably teaches its sales staff to market the new OxyContin as a safer option than older versions, perhaps available in cheaper generics. So did they wait to re-formulate until their patent was ready to expire? I don’t know, but time will tell.

At any rate, this drug is now just a little bit safer, for now. People with addictions are often clever and creative. I won’t be surprised if soon there’s a way to defeat this new technology.

Just think what addicted people could do, if they directed their talent and intelligence in ways that would help and not hurt them. There would be no stopping them.

1. United States Senate. Congressional hearing of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on Examining the Effects of the Painkiller OxyContin, 107th Congress, Second Session, February, 2002.

Buprenorphine implants – study results

This week I read an article in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association describing the results of a randomized controlled trial comparing implantable buprenorphine compared to placebo. Buprenorphine implants are four (five for some patients) small cylinders, inserted just under the skin of the upper inner arm. They are each about an inch long, and release medication up to about six months.

Buprenorphine (brand names Suboxone or Subutex) works well for the treatment of opioid addiction, but only if the patient takes it every day. Like other doctors, I have some patients who occasionally stop taking buprenorphine, so they can use illicit opioids to get high. This problem is eliminated with buprenorphine implants, because the patient receives a steady level of buprenorphine for as long as the implants are in place.

The other problem with Suboxone tablets has been its diversion from patients to the black market. Granted, it’s the safest opioid on the streets, given the ceiling on its opioid effect, but diversion to the black market isn’t desirable to doctors or law enforcement. But the implants, for obvious reasons, can’t be diverted, or at least would be extremely difficult to divert.

In this trial of the buprenorphine implants, patients were randomized to receive either placebo implants or buprenorphine implants. The patients and study evaluators didn’t know who had placebo implants and who had the real thing.

The results surprised no one. The buprenorphine implants were much more effective than the placebo implants. Patients with buprenorphine implants were retained in treatment longer and used less illicit opioids, both at week 16 and week 24. After six months, the implants were removed. The implants were fairly safe, with main problems being related to pain, swelling, or infection at the implant site. In the buprenorphine group, most common side effects compared to placebo were headache and insomnia.

This study is hopeful, but of course the real question is how do buprenorphine implants compare to the sublingual (under the tongue) Suboxone tablets and film? More studies are on the way. But for patients I worry might stop their Suboxone to relapse now and again, and in patients I worry might sell their Suboxone, these implants will be a good option when they become available.