Not all of my patient interactions are easy. One of my colleagues, after reading my blog, remarked, “It sounds like you have really easy patients.” While that’s true for the most part, of course there are more difficult patients, as in any practice. Some patients, eager to get into treatment to stop opioid addiction, may not be at all ready to stop other drugs of addiction. That’s not a deal-breaker for me, unless those drugs could be fatal when mixed with methadone or buprenorphine. This means the use of alcohol, benzodiazepines, and sedatives of other kinds must be discussed in detail.
I’ve noticed a conversational merry-go-round that I call “the benzo conversation.” I’ve had versions of this conversation more times than I can remember.
This conversation occurs during my initial assessment of a new patient presenting for medication-assisted treatment. I always look on my state’s prescription monitoring program for each new patient on the day of admission. If they have prescriptions for benzodiazepines (like Xanax, Valium, or clonazepam), or other sedatives (Soma, Ambien, etc.) I need information about the pattern of use. Is my patient taking his prescribed daily dose? Is he then physically dependent on benzodiazepines? Is he selling them? Is he giving part of the prescription away, and taking the rest? Does he binge on benzos for the first few weeks of the month, and then run out for several weeks? Or is he bartering the benzos for opioids, and not taking any of them, despite filling a large prescription each month?
I really don’t care if the patient is breaking the law or not; I just want to get the complete picture of my patient’s health status.
Following is a typical conversation with a new patient whom I will call “Bob.”
Bob sought admission to our methadone maintenance treatment program for his opioid addiction. He had snorted pain pills for six years, and wanted help. He had little if any denial about his opioid addiction. He denied taking any prescription medications, saying he got all his opioids off the street, used no other drugs or medications, and had no other medical problems.
However, when I checked his name on my state’s controlled prescription monitoring program, he was filling a prescription for Xanax 2mg, ninety per month, from a local Dr. Feelgood. This prescription had been filled every month for the last four years. My patient’s admission urine drug screen also tested positive for benzodiazepines.
As part of my initial history and physical, I asked him about the Xanax prescription. I explained to Bob that benzos have the potential to cause a fatal overdose when mixed with opioids. I told him that benzos are especially risky with methadone, and I was concerned about his use of them.
Bob said, “Oh, I don’t use benzos now. I haven’t used Xanax for years.
“But you’ve been prescribed it every month and picked up the last prescription of ninety pills just two weeks ago.”
“Yes, but I don’t take them. I quit them long ago.”
“And you do have benzos in the urine sample you gave us.”
“Well, that’s probably from a little piece of Valium I used four days ago.”
“Ummm…, Valium’s also a benzo, in the same family as Xanax, so when you say you’ve stopped, that doesn’t make sense to me.…”
“As I told you, I don’t take benzos anymore.”
“But four days ago is pretty recent.”
“No,” he said, getting a little worked up. “As I’ve already told you, I stopped benzos years ago!”
“So what do you do with the Xanax pills you pick up at the pharmacy every month?”
“I don’t know. They’re in the house somewhere. But I don’t take them.”
“So you have…how many bottles do you have at home?”
“Bunches, I don’t know.”
I could tell I was annoying him, but this as an important clinical issue, so I pushed on.
“Would you be willing to bring all those bottles in tomorrow so the nurse can watch you dispose of them?”
He sighed deeply, annoyed by my questions. “Yes. I suppose I can. Now can I get my dose?”
“No, I’ll leave an order for you to be able to start tomorrow after you bring in the medication to dispose, since you tell me you haven’t taken them. I worry about a fatal overdose if methadone were combined with all that Xanax you have at home.”
Now he was mad. “I don’t have any Xanax at home! I’m not going to overdose! I know what I’m doing.”
“Will you give me permission to call the doctor prescribing the Xanax, so we can talk about your entry into treatment here? Maybe your doctor would be willing to taper your dose so that we can make it safer for you to be in treatment with us.”
“No! I don’t want everybody to know my business. My doctor is friends with my ex-wife and if she finds out I’m being treated for addiction, she’ll cause trouble. He can’t find out.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s a deal-breaker for me. I’m not going to prescribe methadone for you unless I can talk to your other doctor. It’s just too risky. All of your doctors need to know all medications that you’re on.”
“So you’re telling me to go back out there and use drugs? That I can’t get help unless my ex-wife finds out I’m an addict?” The veins in his neck were standing out.
“No. I’m not telling you to use drugs. I’m telling you…
“I want my money back, since I’m gonna have to go buy dope again ‘cause you won’t help me. It’s just not right. I came here to get help.” He stalked off toward the receptionist, where I heard him demanding his money back, despite the hour he spent with a counselor and the time spent with me in an evaluation. (For some reason, patients who don’t get admitted to the program don’t feel they should have to pay for their evaluation)
This was a difficult, tense conversation, and one I’ve had too many times to count. This patient wasn’t a bad guy, but he was not ready to address his benzodiazepine use. The outcome wasn’t what I’d hoped, and this patient didn’t come into treatment.
There’s no way I could know what this patient was doing with his benzodiazepine prescription. I couldn’t tell if this patient was telling the truth, in denial, or lying. Without being able to talk to his prescribing doctor, I wasn’t willing to start medication-assisted treatment. This didn’t mean he didn’t need treatment, only that perhaps a different form of treatment will be safer for him. I wish I could have given him information about other treatments, but he left too quickly and too angrily.
Sometimes patients tell me I’m violating their privacy by looking at their information on the prescription monitoring database. I tell them I don’t see it that was at all, since they are asking me to prescribe a medication that could have a fatal interaction with other medications. Not only is it my business, it’s my responsibility.
Some doctors would fault me for not admitting this patient despite his refusal to allow me to talk to his prescribing doctor, given the increased risk of death for patients in active opioid addiction who are not in any treatment. But I would feel terrible if I’d admitted this patient and he died during the first few weeks of a methadone/benzodiazepine overdose. Either way, there’s a lot at stake, and I feel stress about these decisions.