Archive for the ‘Overdose deaths’ Category

Patients with Prior Overdose Still Prescribed Opioids & Benzos

 

 

 

 

I read an interesting article in the latest issue of Journal of Addiction Medicine, titled “Prescribing of Opioids and Benzodiazepines Among Patients With History of Overdose,” by Griggs et al.

This article described a retrospective chart review of patients who had a previous history of opioid or benzodiazepine overdose. They identified patients who were prescribed either an opioid or benzodiazepine in a one-month period, in 2015, then reviewed their charts to see how many of these patients had a previous overdose. Then they studied the patients and prescribing situations to see what they had in common.

This study was done at a large healthcare system based in Charlotte, NC. The system is based at the same hospital where I did my residency in Internal Medicine about a billion years ago. OK, maybe it was only thirty-two years ago, but it feels like another lifetime. This hospital system has a robust Addiction Medicine department now, led by Dr. Stephen Wyatt, an addictionologist of national and perhaps international renown, who co-wrote this study.

The article began by reminding us of the recent increase in morbidity and mortality with opioid use disorder. Then it cited another article that I have written about (see my blog of January 23, 2016) authored by Larochelle et al., 2015, where it was found that in patients who survived an opioid overdose, 91% resumed opioid prescription within the next nine months.

Based on those previous findings, this study proposed to examine the prevalence of prior overdose among patients being prescribed benzodiazepines and/or opioids, and to examine patient and healthcare characteristics in these circumstances.

The study found 543 patients with prior opioid or benzodiazepine overdose history who were prescribed benzodiazepines or opioids during the designated month of the study. All the providers involved in this study use the same electronic medical record (EMR) which contained information about prior overdoses from 2007 forward, though no specific alerts appeared in the EMR.

Interestingly, opioids were involved in just under half of the overdose episodes among these identified patients, and benzodiazepines without opioids were involved in just over half of the overdoses.

Most of the identified patients received opioid or benzodiazepine prescriptions within two years of their documented overdose. Opioids accounted for around 72% of these prescriptions, with benzodiazepines accounting for around 23%, and 5% of the patients got both an opioid and a benzodiazepine, which is a particularly worrisome combination.

Of the patients prescribed opioids and/or benzodiazepines who had a prior overdose, 70% were between the ages of 35 to 64 years old. The leading cause, at 51%, of the prior overdose was unintentional, though 40% were suicide attempts. Many patients had mental health diagnoses: 54% had an anxiety disorder, 55% had depression, and 24% had bipolar disorder. Nearly a third, at 29%, had a diagnosis of substance use disorders.

Around a third of the opioid prescriptions were given for chronic pain issues, despite the prior overdose history. Over 25% of the opioid prescriptions were for more than 50mg daily morphine milligram equivalents. Around half of the patients had a prior drug screen in their record that was positive for marijuana, cocaine, or alcohol.

Most of the post-overdose prescriptions for opioids or benzodiazepines were given in outpatient clinics or emergency departments, but over a fourth of the prescriptions were issued after a medical phone call consultation. Only 5% of opioid or benzodiazepine prescriptions were issued from behavioral health providers, and less than 1% were from cancer care providers.

In the discussion section, the authors of this study voiced surprise that in a fourth of the patients, benzos and/or opioids were prescribed after a telephone consultation. The authors appropriately caution prescribers against this practice.

Having practiced in primary care for ten grueling years, I understand the telephone consult. Heaven help me, but sometimes I was tempted to allow medication to be called in because it would save me time and effort. It would also spare me the unpleasantness of having to see the patient in my office, and the extra time required.

I’m not intentionally being insulting to patients, but I felt patients who repeatedly asked for controlled substances were often miserable people who weren’t fun to take care of. They hurt, both physically and emotionally. I felt hopeless when I saw them, like nothing I could do or say would help them anyway, so where’s the harm in giving them a much-desired controlled substance?

Of course, now that I’m older, wiser, and better educated, I suspect many of these patients had treatable substance use disorder and/or mental health disorders.

The authors of the study concluded that providers for this patient group could have done a better job of identifying higher risk patients. The prescribers could benefit from an electronic tool, which according to the article is presently being developed, to support decision making processes and quantify the risk for a given patient.

I’ve talked in this blog before about the perils of labeling patients as “frequent flyers” or “drug seekers,” pejorative terms that create obstacles between needy patients and their providers. That old kind of labeling fosters the outdated idea that people with substance use disorders are bad, rather than sick. With that old system, patients can receive bad care, because providers stop thinking and start judging.

Instead, this article describes a better idea – one that provides information about the degree of risk for a given patient, before potentially harmful medications are prescribed. It sounds like this sort of tool can help providers mitigate risks for some patients, while not denying them appropriate medical care.

In other words, a high-risk patient with an acute pain situation, like a broken bone, may still need opioids, but fewer pills might be prescribed, with more frequent follow up, than patients at lower risk for overdose.

I don’t know if the tool this healthcare system developed is proprietary; I think I will ask for an example of how it works. I don’t work in primary care any more (addiction medicine is so much more fun), but I like to stay informed about these things.

After the Overdose

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaapic

 

 

 

 

 
I just read an astounding and completely believable study in a recent issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. [1]

This study, done by Dr. Larochelle and associates at Boston University Medical Center, did a retrospective study of prescription opioid overdoses. They looked at patients who were being prescribed opioids long-term for non-cancer pain who had a non-fatal overdose. The study lasted from May 2000 until December 2012, and included over twenty-eight hundred patients. All of these patients had commercial insurance, and were between 18 to 65 years old.

This study found that after having a non-fatal overdose, 91% of these patients resumed getting prescription opioids, and that 70% got them from the same doctor.

The lead author said he was shocked to find so many survivors continue to be prescribed opioids after having an overdose from these very opioids. He had hoped after a near-fatal experience, prescribers would do something different to address pain, in order to prevent future overdose.(https://hereandnow.wbur.org/2016/01/13/opioid-prescriptions-after-overdosing)

From other studies, we know that the best predictor of a future overdose is a past overdose, which is why I ask every patient entering the opioid treatment program (OTP) if he has ever had an overdose.

The author of this study postulated that with our fragmented healthcare system, the prescribers may not have known the patient had an overdose. Not knowing about any problems, the doctor continued to prescribe opioids.

I have no problem envisioning how this happens.

Not long ago, one of my opioid treatment program (OTP) patients missed two days of dosing. Per our protocol, her counselor called her on the first day she missed dosing. The patient told her counselor that she had been admitted to the hospital for trouble breathing, and was being treated for asthma.

Also per out protocol, we request hospital records for every patient of ours who gets admitted to the hospital, and our patient gave permission for this.

When I got the records four days later, imagine my surprise when I read that she had respiratory failure due to an overdose. Her drug screen at the hospital was positive for methadone and also benzodiazepines, and indeed she was now positive for benzos at the OTP too. This information lead to a drastic change in this patient’s treatment plan.

If we had not called to see where our patient was, she could have returned in several days and not told us about her hospital admission.

Our local hospital did not call our OTP to tell us our patient was hospitalized with an overdose. Indeed, they didn’t call to tell us she was in the hospital. To my patient’s credit, she did tell them she was a patient of ours, since it was recorded in her hospital record.

When our patients are admitted to the hospital for medical reasons, the admitting doctors continue to prescribe the usual dose of methadone, and I am happy about that, but they don’t call us to confirm the dose. They take the patient’s word for what the dose has been, instead of making a quick phone call. I worry that someday, one of our patients, in a misguided effort to feel an opioid effect, will tell his hospital doctor he’s been dosing at a higher dose than he actually is, and catastrophe could ensue.

In contrast, the big teaching hospital an hour away, which is where our patients go when they are really sick, routinely calls to confirm each patient’s dose.

The Larochelle study seems to indicate there’s a lack of communication in other medical communities as well. Emergency department physicians may administer Narcan and revive a patient, but no one thinks to take the next essential step: call that patient’s prescriber about the drug overdose.

We can’t assume the patient, now revived from a near-death experience, will tell her doctor about what happened. If that patient has an addiction, she might keep quiet about prescription mishaps, fearing her supply of opioids may be cut off.

Family members might tell the prescribers, and that’s very helpful, but often patients are told the doctor can’t release any information. That is true, but the family can certainly give information to the doctor.

I know hospitals and emergency departments are busy. Healthcare professionals are all busy. We are being asked to do more and more in less and less time. But this is a communication issue, and it need not be a physician- to- physician communication. A nurse or even a social worker from the hospital could call or fax valuable information quickly. Privacy laws can be blamed for some lack of communication, but there are exceptions in life-threatening situations.

And please, let’s make medical records readable. Even when I finally get local emergency department records about one of my patients, I have a hard time deciphering them. I’ll admit to being a bit of a Luddite when it comes to electronic medical records, but partly because most electronic records are not all that helpful.

For example, on our local emergency department records, I quickly can find the results for Ebola screening (it’s on the first page, at the top), but often I am left scratching my head about what the doctor’s final diagnosis and treatment plan was for the patient.

We’ve got to fix this communication problem. It’s great when an overdose is treated and prevented. But let’s do just a little more, and communicate to the prescriber of the overdose medications.

It is life and death.

  1. Ann Intern Med. 2016;164(1):1-9. doi:10.7326/M15-0038

Is Heroin the New Opana?

aaaarateif drygoiusibubgdeaths ukvikvubgheriub

From CDC data released 3/15

From CDC data released 3/15

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new data last month showing a rapid rise in heroin overdose deaths. While total overdose deaths from opioids remained level for the past few years, deaths involving heroin escalated sharply.

The rate has tripled since 2010, and nearly quadrupled since 2000. Males have a four times higher rate than females with the highest rate seen in white males aged 18 to 44. All areas of the country had increased heroin overdose death rates, but the highest were seen in the Midwest, with the Northeast right behind them. The South, for a change, had the lowest rate of heroin deaths, after the West.

Those of us treating patients at OTPs knew heroin was moving into areas where pain pills once dominated, but I had no idea deaths had tripled in three years. That is appalling even to me, and I see appalling things all of the time. I can’t stress enough how bad this is.

Why is this happening? I’ve read and heard various opinions:

 Some people speculate that since marijuana became legal, that crop is less profitable to Mexican farmers, who switched to growing opium poppies. This is just a theory, though the timing supports the premise. I don’t know how it can be proved, short of taking surveys of Mexican farmers, which seems problematic and unlikely to happen.

 As we implemented measures to reduce the availability of prescription opioids, the price increased. Heroin is now cheaper than pain pills in many areas, and heroin’s purity has increased. Many addicts who can’t afford pain pills switch to heroin to prevent withdrawal. NIDA (National Institute for Drug Addiction) estimates one in fifteen people who use prescription opioids for non-medical reasons will try heroin at some point in their addiction.

Maybe that’s why the South still has the lowest heroin overdose death rates: we still have plenty of prescription opioid pain pills on the black market.

 With the increased purity, heroin can be snorted instead of injected. Many people start using heroin by snorting, feeling that’s safer than injection. It probably is safer, but addiction being what it is, many of these people end up injecting heroin at some point.

 Heroin has become more socially acceptable. In the past, heroin was considered a hard-core drug that was used by inner city minorities. Now that rural and suburban young adults are using heroin, it may have lost some of its reputation as a hazardous drug.

Most experts in the field agree that much of the increase in heroin use is an unintended consequence of decreasing the amount of illicit prescription opioids on the street. But we are doing the right thing by making prescription opioids less available. Physicians are less likely to overprescribe and that’s essential to the health of our nation.

Now it’s critical that we provide all opioid addicts with quick access to effective treatment, no matter where they live.

The face of heroin addiction has changed. It is no longer only inner-city minorities who are using and dying from heroin; now Midwestern young men from the suburbs and rural areas are the most likely to be using and dying from heroin.

In the past, when drug addiction was seen as a problem of the poor and down-trodden (in other words, inner-city minorities), the general public didn’t get too excited. But when addiction affected people in the middle classes, there was a public outcry. The Harrison Act of 1914 was passed due to public demand for stronger drug laws.

I think the same thing will happen now. Suburban parents will organize and demand solutions from elected officials for this wave of heroin addiction. Indeed, I think that’s already started to happen.

Let’s make sure a big part of the solution is effective treatment.

Let’s make treatment as easy to get as heroin.

Alcohol and Opioids (and Benzos) Don’t Mix!

aaaawarning

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report in October of 2014 that analyzed data regarding the contribution of alcohol in opioid overdose deaths and in emergency department visits for opioid misuse. They also looked to see if alcohol was present in benzodiazepine overdose deaths, and emergency department visits related to benzodiazepine misuse. This information was gathered in 2010 by the Drug Abuse Warning System, (DAWN). [1]

The report found that alcohol was a contributing factor in at least twenty percent of the opioid overdose deaths. When they looked at emergency department visits for opioid misuse complications, alcohol was present in about eighteen percent of patients.

In other words, alcohol is a contributing factor in one-fifth of serious opioid overdoses deaths and near-overdoses.

The data was similar for alcohol combined with benzodiazepines; twenty percent of benzodiazepine-related deaths had alcohol present in the decedent’s body as a contributing factor. For emergency department visits related to benzodiazepine use, alcohol was present in over a fourth of these patients.

I don’t find this data to be surprising. If anything, I’d expect a higher percentage of decedents to have alcohol as a contributing factor to both opioid and benzodiazepine overdose deaths. Alcohol and benzos both act on the same type of brain receptors, and have the same sedative effect on the brain. They both also act of the portion of the brain that tells us to breathe while we are asleep. Since opioids have the same effect, particularly at higher doses, any combination of these three substances can result in death. The person goes to sleep, stops breathing, and dies.

Other bits of data in this report were interesting. For example, more men than women had alcohol as a contributing factor in opioid-related and benzodiazepine-related emergency department visits. That’s not a surprising finding, since men have a higher rate of binge-drinking than women.

In this study, older people were more likely to have used alcohol along with their opioid than younger people. Overdoses in people aged 40 to 59 had alcohol in around one-fourth of the deaths.

The study found people who used hydrocodone were more likely to consume alcohol. That’s an interesting finding. Maybe opioid addicts who have hydrocodone available, as compared to stronger opioids like oxycodone, tend to supplement with alcohol in order to boost the effect of the opioid. That’s merely conjecture on my part, but it’s based on conversations with opioid-addicted patients over the last ten years. Opioid-addicted patients will use anything to ease opioid withdrawal symptoms: alcohol, benzos, even cocaine or methamphetamine

For people who overdosed on benzodiazepines, twenty-eight percent were over age 60. There’s another good reason to avoid or reduce benzodiazepines in people over sixty.

I think this data shows we need to do a better job of educating patients not only of the danger of benzodiazepines and opioids mixed together, but that alcohol can be just as deadly with either benzodiazepines or opioids.

I really worry about my patients who drink alcohol while being prescribed either methadone or buprenorphine (Suboxone). Too many of my patients are cavalier about mixing alcohol with other drugs and medications. Many of them say they don’t see alcohol as a real problem, because they’ve been able to start and stop alcohol, unlike opioids. They say alcohol is legal, so what’s all the fuss? They say they don’t drink any more than their friends. Everybody drinks, don’t they?

No, they don’t. About thirty percent of the U.S. population doesn’t drink alcohol at all. Only fifty-six percent have had an alcoholic drink over the past month, which means nearly half of the people in this country haven’t had any alcohol over the last month.

One of my patients told me it was his right as an American to drink alcohol, and was angry at me when I told him of the dangers of mixing alcohol with methadone. I told him I didn’t know if drinking was a right or not; I was only telling him about how alcohol and drugs affect the body.

Sometimes I ask patients what they think about the warning label on their pill bottle that says, “Do not take with alcohol.” Some patients say they don’t believe warning labels because they’ve had alcohol with buprenorphine or other opioids before, and nothing bad happened. Some say they think the warning labels are put on all medicine bottles to protect the pharmacy from being sued.

Just because something has never happened before doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen in the future. Many factors can influence overdose risk, and it’s dangerous to assume an overdose can’t happen because it hasn’t happened before.

1. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6340a1.htm

Project Lazarus in the Huffington Post

aaaaaaaprojlaz

In a nice article in the Huffington Post, Project Lazarus, located in Wilkes County, NC, was highlighted as an example of how a community can take action to prevent drug overdose deaths. Please check it out at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/05/project-lazarus_n_4889620.html?1394071210

Many people think Project Lazarus provides naloxone kits to reverse overdoses, and this is true, but they do much more than that. Project Lazarus has sponsored educational programs for doctors to learn to be more cautious when prescribing opioids, has sponsored medication take back days where old prescription meds can safely be disposed, and has worked with agencies and organizations across North Carolina and the nation to better inform doctors, law enforcement, and elected officials about what works to prevent drug overdose deaths.

Project Lazarus helped pass a Good Samaritan law North Carolina (see my post of April 20, 2013). Under this new law, a person who calls 911 to save another person’s life – or their own – won’t be prosecuted for minor drug possession, since they were trying to do the right thing and save a life by calling 911.

The Huffington Post article describes how the opioid overdose death rate has been falling in Wilkes County, while the overdose death rate in other parts of the country has been steadily rising. They credit Project Lazarus for this reduction in overdose deaths.

While I’m sure Project Lazarus has played a huge role in reducing overdose deaths not only in Wilkes County and the state of North Carolina, other factors have helped. Being an opioid addiction treatment provider, of course I believe availability of addiction treatment reduced deaths too.

Project Lazarus also supported the opening of an opioid treatment program in 2011, Mountain Health Solutions. Started by Dr. Elizabeth Stanton, this program initially offered only buprenorphine. As it grew, it became obvious some patients needed methadone treatment, so option became available by late 2011. Mountain Health Solutions was eventually purchased by CRC Health in 2012, and has continued to grow. Located in a small town, we have nearly four hundred patients.

I am honored to be the medical director at this program. It’s one on the best programs I’ve seen, and we work hard to keep improving our quality of care. Our program has done outreach -particularly in the medical community- to try to reduce the stigma of medication-assisted treatment. If you read my blog, you know this can be both a joy and a challenge.

Initially, Project Lazarus paid for an intranasal naloxone kit for every patient entering our opioid treatment program. Now since our patient census has risen, Project Lazarus still pays half of the $50 cost of the kits. The opioid treatment program pays the other half, out of a $33 admission charge for new patients. I feel lucky to be able to partner with Project Lazarus, as I’ve seen these kits save lives.

I know of four occasions when a naloxone kit saved a person’s life. Three of these four times, that person saved wasn’t even in treatment for opioid addiction.

Most recently, a parent used a kit to reverse an opioid overdose in a child who accidently ingested the parent’s medication. The parent called 911 and while waiting for EMS to arrive, used one of the two vials in the kit. The child partially woke, and started breathing better. Then EMS arrived and took the child to the hospital. This child survived a potentially fatal overdose and is back to normal with no lasting damage, thanks in part to that naloxone kit and a parent who knew how to use it.

Naloxone kits can be obtained much more cheaply, but contain Narcan vials, a more dilute form of naloxone that is meant to be injected. Those kits, which cost a few dollars, contain a syringe and needle instead of the Project Lazarus kit for nasal administration. Trying to inject naloxone into a vein is technically much more difficult than spraying the more concentrated form of naloxone up into the nose.

And unfortunately, a kit containing a needle and syringe would meet resistance from the public. I can imagine all sorts of angry phone calls to our opioid treatment program: “My son came to you people to get off the needle and you GAVE him a needle and syringe??” Politically, the public would more likely oppose distribution of a naloxone kit with a needle than a kit for intranasal use.

Fifty dollars for an intranasal naloxone kit to save a life is a pittance in the overall picture. Some insurance companies will cover these kits, as will Medicaid, but most of our patients have no insurance. They pay for their buprenorphine/methadone treatment out of their own pocket. Fifty dollars is a big sum for these patients.

I am blessed to work for an opioid treatment program that gets financial help from Project Lazarus for these kits. And I am very blessed to work for a for-profit company, CRC Health, which is willing to bear half the cost of the kits, since this comes out of their profits. Most opioid treatment programs do charge patients an admission fee, but unlike Mountain Health Solutions, don’t put that money towards buying a naloxone kits for their patients.

This is an example of the success that can happen when agencies work together toward a common goal.

Warning Warning Warning

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaacution

If you are still using heroin, or know someone using heroin, please heed this caution. SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) sent out a notification last week, warning people that a deadly form of heroin is causing deaths in the Northeast.

Since the first of the year, thirty-none overdose deaths occurred in Pittsburgh and Rhode Island from heroin contaminate with fentanyl. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid, and kills opioid addicts accustomed to using heroin alone. Trends like these can spread rapidly, so if you are reading this and know someone who uses IV heroin, warn them about this deadly heroin.

When I first read SAMHSA’s notification, I wondered if I should put the warning on my blog. Being realistic, I know some addicts will think, “How can I get some of that? It sounds like good stuff!” That’s the insanity of addiction…people are dying from a variety of heroin and other addicts want to try the deadly substance, believing they can use without harm.

In the interest of harm reduction, I’m going to describe precautions that addicts, still in active addiction, can take to reduce the risk of overdose death. This information can be accessed at: http://harmreduction.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/getting-off-right.pdf

1. Don’t use alone. Use a buddy system, to have someone who can call 911 in case you stop breathing. Do the same for another addict. Obviously you shouldn’t inject at the same time. Stagger your injection times.
Many states now have Good Samaritan laws that protect the overdose victim and the person calling 911 for help, so that police don’t give criminal charges to people who do the right thing by calling for help for an overdose.
Take a class on how to give CPR so that you can revive a friend or acquaintance with an overdose while you wait on EMS to arrive.
2. Get a naloxone kit. I’ve blogged about how one patient saved his sister with a naloxone kit. These are easy to use and very effective. You can read more about these kits at the Project Lazarus website: http://projectlazarus.org/
3. Use new equipment. Many pharmacies sell needles and syringes without asking questions. Your addict friends probably can tell you which pharmacies are the most understanding.
Don’t use a needle and syringe more than once. Repeated use dulls the needle’s point and causes more damage to the vein and surrounding tissue. Don’t try to re-sharpen on a matchbook – frequently this can cause burrs on the needle point which can cause even more tissue damage.
4. Don’t share any equipment. Many people who wouldn’t think of sharing a needle still share cottons, cookers, or spoons, but hepatitis C and HIV can be transmitted by sharing any of this other equipment. If you have to share or re-use equipment, wash needle and syringe with cold water several times, then do the same again with bleach. Finally, wash out the bleach with cold water. This reduces the risk of transmitting HIV and Hepatitis C, but isn’t foolproof.
5. Use a tester shot. Since heroin varies widely in its potency, use small amount of the drug to assess its potency. You can always use more, but once it’s been injected you can’t use less. The New England overdose deaths described by SAMHSA may have been avoided if the addicts had used smaller tester shots instead of shooting up the usual amount.
6. Use clean cotton to filter the drug. Use cotton from a Q-tip or cotton ball; cigarette filters are not as safe because they contain glass particles.
7. Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing your shot, and clean the injection site with an alcohol wipe if possible. Don’t use lemon juice to help dissolve heroin, as it carries a contaminant that can cause a serous fungal infection.
8. Opioid overdoses are much more likely to occur in an addict who hasn’t used or has used less than usual for a few days, weeks, or longer. Overdose risks are much higher in people just getting out of jail and just getting out of a detox. Patients who have recently stopped using Suboxone or Subutex may be more likely to overdose if they resume their usual amount of IV opioids.
9. Don’t mix drugs. Many opioid overdoses occur with combinations of opioids and alcohol or benzodiazepines, though overdose can certainly occur with opioids alone.
10. Don’t inject an overdosed person with salt water, ice water, or a stimulant such as cocaine or crystal methamphetamine – these don’t work and may cause harm. Don’t put the person in an ice bath and don’t leave them alone. Call for help, and give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if you can.

To people who believe I’m giving addicts permission to use, I’d like to remind them that addicts don’t care if someone gives them permission or not. If an addict wants to use, what other people think matters little. But giving people information about how to inject more safely may help keep the addict alive until she wants to get help.

The Harm Reduction Coalition has excellent information on its website: http://harmreduction.org

More about IRETA’s Guidelines for Benzodiazepines in OTPs

aaaapils

This is a continuation of my last blog post about the IRETA (Institute for Research, Education & Training in Addictions) guidelines for management of benzodiazepine use in medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction. You can read all of the guidelines at: http://ireta.org/sites/ireta.org/files/Best%20Practice%20Guidelines%20for%20BZDs%20in%20MAT%202013_0.pdf

Under the section of recommendations regarding addressing benzodiazepine use is found the following statement:
“Many people presenting to services have an extensive history of multiple substance dependence and all substance abuse, including benzodiazepines, should be actively addressed in treatment. People who have a history of benzodiazepine abuse should not be disallowed from receiving previously prescribed benzodiazepines, provided they are monitored carefully and have stopped the earlier abuse.”

The experts, after reviewing the best data, are saying that if a patient has abused benzos in the past, but isn’t abusing prescribed benzos now, it may be OK to continue benzos, with careful monitoring.

I don’t like this statement. It doesn’t conform to my present thoughts on the topic. I fear that the majority of patients with a history of benzodiazepine abuse or addiction will, sooner or later, revert back to problem use of the medication. That’s my anecdotal experience. Anecdotal experience is worth something, but data from clinical trials trumps anecdotal experience, and IRETA’s guidelines are based on both clinical trials and expert opinion.

So now I need to challenge my previously held views about benzos in the OTP. It’s unpleasant and uncomfortable to change a long-held view. But isn’t that what I ask of my patients? In the interest of science, I will re-consider my present opinion, but I won’t ignore the last part of the statement, which says careful monitoring needs to be done.

Careful monitoring includes, at a minimum, coordination of care between the OTP physician and the provider prescribing benzodiazepines, frequent benzodiazepine pill counts, and consulting the state’s prescription monitoring program regularly.

The IRETA guidelines say coordination of care is essential. The guidelines say that a patient who refuses to allow coordination of care between OTP physician and the physician prescribing sedative drugs may not be appropriate for treatment at an OTP with methadone/buprenorphine. The guidelines recommend the OTP physician get information on the patient’s diagnosis being treated with benzodiazepines and any observed misuse of the medication. The OTP doctor should also ask about the patient’s experience with non-benzo medications for the treatment of the patient’s disorder.

These are great ideas in a perfect world, but problematic in the real world.

Coordination of care is a term that’s batted around by non-physicians like a helium balloon, while in reality it’s as difficult as playing catch with anvils. Doctors, especially primary care doctors, are more pushed for time than ever. Many are at risk of losing their jobs if they don’t see enough patients per hour. (I know this because I was a primary care doctor before I fled the field for the more enjoyable addiction medicine.) Primary care doctors don’t want to spend valuable time on the phone talking to other doctors, especially if the other doctor works at “that clinic.”

I have found a few doctors in my area with whom I work well. I may not always agree with them, but I sense they are trying to do what’s best for their patients, and we can generally come to an agreement about the best plan of care.

And other doctors…not so much.

It’s not rare for my phone calls to prescribers of benzodiazepines to go unanswered. I’ve left up to four messages for one benzo-prescribing doctor at our local mental health clinic and have never received a return call. If we share a patient, I can’t coordinate care.

Even when I do get a call back, the conversation with the other provider is sometimes less than productive. The prescriber often says the patient is on Xanax because she has always been on Xanax, and there’s no clear diagnosis or plan of treatment for the underlying disorder. Prescriptions may be written twice a year with little discussion, with five refills. If non-benzo medications were prescribed in the past, the patient didn’t take them for very long before deciding that benzos were the only thing that worked for them. The doctor took this at face value and enthusiastically prescribed benzos ever since.

Sometimes I’ve suggested the doctor start a slow taper of the patient off benzos, if it’s clear the patient is misusing them. The doctor readily agrees with my suggestion, but month after month, on the prescription monitoring program website, I see the same amount of benzodiazepine being prescribed.

I’m not saying these are necessarily bad prescribers. I won’t call them doctors, because sometimes they’re also nurse practitioners or physician assistants. I do think many of them are pushovers, afraid of making patients angry by saying no. And some aren’t aware of best practice guidelines for prescribing benzodiazepines in general, even if the patient doesn’t have addiction.

Because I’ve worked in primary care, I know what happens. Benzo-seeking patients know which prescribers to go to, and they pester these providers incessantly until they are given the prescription they want. The providers, already pushed for time, give in to patient demands in order to get these patients the hell out of their office.

In my area, two or three prescribers are responsible for the majority of long-term benzodiazepine prescriptions. If I see a patient is on benzodiazepines, particularly alprazolam (Xanax) clonazepam (Klonopin) or diazepam (Valium), I can predict the prescriber. Addicts know who to go to; word gets around on the addict grapevine, an efficient mode for spreading news. I don’t feel I can coordinate care with these providers, even if I can talk to them about my concerns for a specific patient.

I agree with IRETA guidelines, but coordinating care with other prescribers isn’t always workable.

Getting back to the guidelines, later in the document is this important statement:

“Depending on capacity, it may be more appropriate for clinical settings to choose not to induct a person in MAT until benzodiazepine use has ceased and not manage a patient’s taper from benzodiazepines during MAT induction. This person may be more appropriate for inpatient detoxification.”

I heartily agree with this, and that’s what I’m doing at present. It’s much easier to get the taper from benzodiazepines done before MAT is started. Once the patient is on MAT, it’s nearly impossible – in my area – to find an affordable inpatient program that will accept patients on MAT, continue to dose them, and also treat the benzodiazepine or alcohol addiction. I hear from doctors in other states that they have inpatient programs willing to admit MAT patients with co-occurring benzo/alcohol addiction, and buprenorphine or methadone maintenance is continued during the admission. If I had that option available, I would use it.

IRETA guidelines say that patients with significant medical or psychiatric problems should be admitted to a hospital (or, I assume, medical detoxification units) for a benzodiazepines taper. Patients who have had benzodiazepine withdrawal seizures in the past also need to be hospitalized for a benzodiazepine taper, as should pregnant patients.

IRETA guidelines address induction of the dose of maintenance medication for patients taking benzodiazepines. Induction, usually considered to be the first several weeks of treatment, is the most dangerous time of treatment. Most overdose deaths happen during that time. As expected, the guidelines suggest using a lower starting dose of the methadone or buprenorphine in a patient with active benzodiazepine use, and daily observed dosing. The guidelines also say patients taking benzodiazepines who are starting MAT should not drive themselves to the facility each day until they have stabilized, and that they need to give permission for the program to call a relative if they come to the facility impaired. Impaired patients are not to be dosed, of course.

This section also recommends repeated attempts to talk with the patient about dose reduction of benzodiazepines and complete withdrawal from benzodiazepines at some point.

Under the section of IRETA guidelines addressing patient non-compliance with a taper agreement, they recommend trying to retain the patient in treatment if possible, but also say to eliminate take home doses so that the patient doses at the OTP facility each day. If the patient is misusing benzos to the degree that their safety is at risk, despite intensified psychosocial treatments, the patient may need to be referred to a non-MAT treatment for their opioid addiction.

I found interesting statements near the end of the IRETA guidelines, such as:
“Individuals who claim that “nothing else helps” should have a careful evaluation for addiction. Physicians should be aware that the subjective nature of anxiety allows for dishonest presentations of symptoms. The claim that “nothing else helps” is often a direct demand for benzodiazepines from the physician. A reasonable response is a trial of psychotherapy and medications without addictive potential.”

“Benzodiazepines should not be the first-line drug for any disorder.” And “Clinicians are advised not to use benzodiazepines to treat co-occurring psychiatric disorders.”

These statements illustrate the essence of the issue. Benzodiazepines have limited clinical indications. Use for more than three months has little benefit because of the quick development of tolerance to the anti-anxiety effect of the benzodiazepine. For that reason, they aren’t first-line drugs for anxiety disorders. And yet many prescribers take the “nothing else helps” statements at face value and prescribe benzodiazepines for years.

More statements about how to prescribe benzodiazepines from the IRETA guidelines:
“For people receiving methadone, physicians are advised to prescribe a benzodiazepine with a slow onset and long duration of action, at the lowest dose, and for the shortest duration possible.
Document education and treatment decisions during the initiation of benzodiazepines.
Avoid prescribing alprazolam to individuals receiving methadone.
Benzodiazepines with substantially lower abuse potential (e.g. oxazepam, clorazepate) are strongly preferred over benzodiazepines with a rapid onset, such as diazepam and alprazolam, which should be avoided because of their abuse potential.
Initiate short-term benzodiazepines with a prescription for no longer than one week.
For a short-course of treatment, the benzodiazepine prescription should be for less than one month.”
“Long-term maintenance of benzodiazepines is rarely indicated and should be avoided.
Providing a maintenance benzodiazepine dose in the context of MAT is to be considered a last-resort option after other alternatives have been exhausted.
One of the few who may benefit from a maintenance dose of benzodiazepine is a person who has long-term opioid and benzodiazepine abuse and is not able to stabilize on opioid substitution medication alone.”

These statements assure me that long-term benzodiazepine prescriptions are a bad idea for the majority of patients on medication-assisted treatment, but there may be some rare patients for whom it may be of benefit, though close monitoring is essential.

This is a controversial area. I appreciate IRETA’s time and effort in formulating these guidelines. I think they will be helpful as OTP doctors struggle to define a standard of treatment that is safe, yet not unduly restrictive for patients with serious mental health issues.

The Benzodiazepine Dilemma: New Guidelines for Opioid Treatment Programs from IRETA

aaabenzos

I’ve written about benzodiazepines before in this blog (See my post of November 3, 2012). I worry about overdose deaths and other complications in patients for whom I prescribe methadone who are also taking benzodiazepines, prescribed or illicit.

Now doctors at OTPs have help from the Institute for Research, Education and Training in Addiction (IRETA). This well-respected organization located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania just issued an evidence-based document titled, “Management of Benzodiazepines in Medication-Assisted Treatment.” You can access this document at IRETA’s website: http://ireta.org/

I love IRETA for tackling this subject. There’s much misinformation about the use of benzodiazepines, even for patients without addiction. But for patients with addiction, benzodiazepines can be deadly when combined with opioids including methadone and buprenorphine.

IRETA’s document first describes how and why these guidelines were created. Opioid treatment programs often have patients who also use benzodiazepines, both by prescription and illicitly. Physicians at OTPs have widely varying responses to these patients. Some programs have zero tolerance, meaning they won’t allow anyone on benzodiazepines to be in their opioid treatment program. Other physicians at OTPs actually prescribe benzodiazepines for their patients when they feel it’s clinically indicated. IRETA wanted to delve into actual scientific literature and consult a panel of experts for interpretation of that data. This IRETA document describes in detail how the literature search was done. It also goes into exhaustive detail about how each statement in the set of guidelines was vetted by experts.

This paper’s guidelines fall into seven categories:

General guidelines
Assessment for MAT
Addressing benzodiazepine use
MAT for patients with concurrent benzodiazepine use
Noncompliance with treatment agreement
Risk management/Impairment assessment
Special circumstances

Here are the general guidelines, taken directly from the document:

CNS depressant use is not an absolute contraindication for either methadone or buprenorphine, but is a reason for caution because of potential respiratory depression. Serious overdose and death may occur if MAT is administered in conjunction with benzodiazepines, sedatives, tranquilizers, anti-depressants, or alcohol.
People who use benzodiazepines, even if used as a part of long-term therapy, should be considered at risk for adverse drug reactions including overdose and death.
Many people presenting to services have an extensive history of multiple substance dependence and all substance abuse, including benzodiazepines, should be actively addressed in treatment. MAT should not generally be discontinued for persistent benzodiazepine abuse, but requires the implementation of risk management strategies.
Clinicians should ensure that every step of decision-making is clearly documented.
Clinicians would benefit from the development of a toolkit about the management of benzodiazepines in methadone treatment that includes videos and written materials for individuals in MAT.

Please note that under the third point of the general guidelines, it says patients shouldn’t be taken off MAT because of repeated benzo use, but need “risk management strategies.” That’s a little vague, but IRETA guidelines go into more detail later in the document.

IRETA’s second section of guidelines is about assessment for MAT. The guidelines say all of the usual things; for example, they say a doctor should do a complete evaluation of a patient presenting for treatment, as described in SAMHSA’s TIP (Treatment Improvement Protocol) 40 and 43. The evaluation should include the patient’s history of medical problems and history of all drug use, even over the counter medication. A mental status assessment and a drug screen should also be included.

Also under the assessment section, IRETA suggests adding patient education about the dangers of mixing benzos with methadone or buprenorphine. I like this idea, and I do something similar. When I ask about past drug use, I always warn patients about the potential bad outcome of mixing benzos and alcohol with the medication I’m going to prescribe, and I repeat the warning at the end of our interaction.

IRETA suggest doctors go farther, and give patients information not only about overdose risk, but also about the other problems benzodiazepines can cause. Benzodiazepines are associated with a greater risk of depression and suicide. Having a prescription for benzodiazepines doubles a patient’s risk for an auto accident, and increases the risk for other accidents, like falls. Taking a benzodiazepine prescription is associated with an increased risk for hip fracture.

The IRETA guidelines remind us that there is “Substantial and growing literature that suggests long term use of benzodiazepines (especially in large doses) leads to cognitive decline.” (page 16 of the report) the guidelines also say that benzodiazepines are associated with emotional blunting, and long-term sleep and mood disturbances. Even more relevant, studies show that patients on benzodiazepines have worse outcomes in medication-assisted treatment.

The third section of IRETA’s guidelines is about addressing benzodiazepine use. They say that a patient should be willing to address their benzo addiction. IRETA says that uncontrolled use of benzodiazepines is a contraindication to treatment with methadone or buprenorphine because of the “extremely high risk for adverse drug reaction involving overdose and/or death during the induction process.”

I’m in the “amen” corner for that one! But it’s hard for me to know which patients use benzos occasionally to help opioid withdrawal, and which patients use benzos heavily in an uncontrolled manner. Most patients, seeing me for admission to MAT, minimize their use of benzodiazepines, knowing it’s a big issue. If they’re getting benzodiazepine prescriptions in large amount from multiple doctors, I can see that on our state’s prescription monitoring program. If the patient is taking benzos illicitly, I may not have a way to know this. Information from family members and friends can sometimes help, if the patient will allow. Or family members and friends may be as heavily involved in addiction as the patient presenting for treatment.

The IRETA guidelines remind us that patients on long-term benzodiazepine therapy are at risk for adverse drug reactions which can include overdose and death. The guidelines say that central nervous system depressants are not absolutely contraindicated with methadone, but also put patients at risk for overdose and death. I assume at this point in the document, its authors are referring to other non-benzo central nervous system depressants like carisopradol (Soma), zolpidem (Ambien), and the other “z” sleep medications, and perhaps pregabalin (Lyrica).

IRETA’s benzodiazepine guidelines for OTPs are extensive, so I’m going to split my review of the contents over two blog entries. Stay tuned…or even better, go read them for yourself:

Click to access Best%20Practice%20Guidelines%20for%20BZDs%20in%20MAT%202013_0.pdf

1. Thomas et al, “Benzodiazepine use and motor vehicle accidents. Systematic review of reported association.” Canadian Family Physician, 1998 April;44:799-808.
2. Smink et al, “The relationship between benzodiazepine use and traffic accidents: A systematic literature review.” CNS Drugs, 2010 Aug.24(8)6390653.

Another Life Saved by Project Lazarus Naloxone Kit

Back to Life

Last week I talked to a young person, a patient at an opioid treatment program, who saved someone with her Project Lazarus naloxone kit. As you know if you read this blog regularly, Project Lazarus is a non-profit organization that started in Wilkes County, North Carolina, dedicated to reducing drug overdose deaths. As part of the project, Project Lazarus pays for naloxone kits for patients entering medication-assisted opioid addiction treatment. The patients are given a prescription for a kit that will be filled for free at a local pharmacy.

These kits are ingenious, because the naloxone is already packaged in a syringe with a spray attachment. There’s no needle. The person administering the drug pushes the plunger of the syringe to spray the medication into a nostril. Naloxone is absorbed through the skin of the nostril and into the bloodstream, reversing the effect of all opioids. In this way, naloxone immediately brings the person out of opioid-induced sedation or coma.

I talked to this person who used her kit, to get the full description of events. I’ve changed some details to prevent anyone from recognizing her.

Cindy said she was driving across town when she had the sudden urge to visit a relative, whom we will call Bob. Bob was on parole, and Cindy wanted to stop by and say hello. Bob isn’t an addict, but has occasionally experimented with illicit drugs, including opioids. When Bob opened the door for Cindy, his first words were, “I think I’ve just taken an overdose.” An acquaintance sold Bob some prescription opioid pills, and moments before Cindy stopped by he took all of them. Right away, he began to fear he’d taken too much.

Cindy wanted to take Bob to the hospital but he refused, fearing his parole officer would find out he’d used illegal drugs. Cindy agreed to stay with Bob, and warned him that if he passed out, she would call EMS, but Bob begged her not to do this.

At first they talked and watched TV, but within an hour Bob got sleepy and his head nodded. Initially Cindy could still wake him by shouting, but she was alarmed to see his breathing slow. She said his lips began to turn blue, and he was taking huge noisy breaths only a few times per minutes. She lived nearby, so she sent her boyfriend to get her naloxone kit. She pushed the plunger and sprayed the naloxone into Bob’s nostril. She said it took less than a minute for him to wake with a start. He even jumped out of his chair. He was standing up and breathing heavily. It was a few minutes before he felt like himself again. Cindy started to call 911 but Bob again pleaded with her not to do so because of his fears about what would happen with his parole situation.

Cindy was (correctly) worried the naloxone wasn’t going to last, so she sat with Bob through the whole night. Several hours after the first naloxone dose, she gave him a second dose, since he was again breathing slowly and heavily. It worked as well as the first. Thankfully, he was OK after that.

The next morning, Bob was grateful to Cindy for saving his life. He knew he had nearly died, and told Cindy he was never going to use drugs again. The event happened a week or so ago, and Cindy says as far as she know, Bob hasn’t used any drugs since.

Cindy saved Bob’s life because she had the Project Lazarus kit. I asked her what she would have done without it, and she said she would have called 911 even over Bob’s objections – she wasn’t going to watch him die.

This whole episode illustrates some of the problems that can contribute to overdoses. First, it isn’t only addicts who die from overdoses. Bob is a young adult who by Cindy’s report has only experimented with drugs. The trouble is that with opioids, your first experimentation can be the last thing you ever do. If Bob isn’t an addict, he may be able to stop using after this near disaster.

Second, it shows the new Good Samaritan law doesn’t go far enough. Bob was fearful about legal consequences of getting much-needed medical help. If Cindy hadn’t dropped by, this young man probably would have died. He had a brief period of time between realizing he may have taken an overdose and becoming so sedated he was unable to call for help, but he didn’t call, because he feared legal consequences. I think the Good Samaritan law should be broadened to include seeking help for oneself as well as for other people.

Third, would it have been better for Cindy to forget her kit and call the ambulance for Bob? Maybe, though not from Bob’s point of view. Stories like these travel fast along the drug addiction grapevine, so I’m hoping more people will get interested in having a kit that can reverse an overdose, if for no other reason than getting help without involving authorities.

I advocate making these kits available for anyone who wants one, if that’s financially possible. Over the period of a little more than a year, I’ve heard of two lives saved from opioid overdoses because other people used their naloxone kits. In both situations, the person saved was not the addict for whom the kit was prescribed, but a relative of that addict. This underlines the importance of getting these kits in the hands of friends and family members of all opioid users, even if the users are not addicts. Since the recent passage of the Good Samaritan law, it’s legal for physicians to prescribe naloxone for family member and friends of opioid addicts.

In the news last week we learned Project Lazarus of Wilkes County will get an infusion of $2.6 million over the next two years from both a private charity and government funds. The naloxone kits are only one part of the total program, and I hope to see funds for the kits expand so that any doctor can write a naloxone prescription for any opioid addict, friend or family of an addict that can be filled for free.

The New Good Samaritan Law: Go ahead…Call 911

New Good Samaritan Law for North Carolina

New Good Samaritan Law for North Carolina

In an effort to reduce drug overdose deaths, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory approved a law earlier this month that limits legal consequences for people who call 911 to summon help for a friend who has overdosed. In the past, drug users have been reluctant to summon medical assistance for an overdosed companion, fearing police may arrive, and charge them with possession of drugs and/or paraphernalia. As a result, people die from overdoses due to a lack of timely medical care. In its place, the overdosed person’s companions may try an ineffective home remedy for overdose.

The new law doesn’t give a pass for all drug possession. It says that a person acting in good faith to seek medical assistance for an individual suffering a drug overdose will not be prosecuted for possession of less than one gram of cocaine or one gram of heroin. I don’t know if that means possession of larger amounts may still be prosecuted, but I suspect so. There is no mention of prescription drug possession specifically in the law, but I hope prescription opioids would be treated the same as heroin.

This new bill, called the Good Samaritan Bill, also says that if an underage drinker summons medical help for another person, the underage drinker will not be prosecuted by law enforcement, including campus police. The law says the underage drinker must use his own name when contacting authorities, reasonably believe he was the first to call for help, and must remain with the person needing medical help until it arrives to be covered by this law.

The bill has provisions for doctors to be able to prescribe an opioid antagonist such as naloxone to any person at risk of having an opioid-related overdose. Doctors can also prescribe this medication to the friend or family member of a person at risk for an overdose, even if that person is not a patient of the doctor. Also, a private citizen who possesses an overdose kit can administer it to another person who has had an overdose, so long as they use reasonable care. This law says the private citizen is immune to civil or criminal liability.

This is a great new law, and hopefully it will reduce witnessed overdose deaths. But the law won’t help unless addicts and their companions are aware of this law. Spread the word!