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Mandated Training?


 

 

 

 

It looks like 2017 is going to be the year of governmental solutions to the opioid use disorder problem.

I blogged last week about the regulation passed by the Virginia Board of Medicine. Now there’s a proposed bill making its way through the NC legislature, advocating new laws to help solve the addiction problem. Legislators certainly have their hearts in the right place. I agree with many parts of the proposed bill.

But now, I’d like to suggest a new regulation: ask all doctors to take an eight-hour course on opioid use disorder and its treatment with medication-assisted treatments, as a prerequisite to renewing their licenses.

I can hear my colleagues already howling with indignation. I’d feel the same way if I were them. It’s hard to admit you don’t have the education you need in an area of medicine. But this specialized area of medicine powerfully influences nearly all other subspecialties of medicine, so the consequences of neglecting the disease of addiction can be enormous.

Before I listen to my fellow physicians’ protests, I’d like to give examples, from my own community, of some things medical providers have done with patients prescribed opioids, and with patients who have opioid use disorder. I believe they all could have been handled better. Patient details have been changed to protect identities.

Example number one:

One of my patients needed to have surgery on his lumbar spine. He went to see the orthopedic specialist and was told he had to taper off methadone before the procedure could be done. I asked my patient why the doctor told him this, and the patient said he didn’t know. The patient said he was also told he couldn’t be “allowed” to have any pain medicine after he left the hospital after this surgery.

I’ve had other doctors in my area tell patients the same thing. One local weight loss surgeon tells patients they have to come off their evidence-based treatments (methadone or buprenorphine) for their potentially fatal medical illness (opioid use disorder) before he will agree to do any sort of gastric bypass weight loss surgery.

I was eager to have a discussion with my patient’s orthopedic surgeon, but my patient told me not to bother. He said he wasn’t going back to that surgeon anyway, and planned to get a second opinion at a nearby teaching hospital. I told him I thought this was a very good idea, though I was disappointed I couldn’t talk to the orthopedic surgeon. I was actually looking forward to that conversation. Probably the maniacal gleam in my eye made my patient tell me not to call.

Example number two:

Several weeks ago, I saw a new patient who was seeking admission to our opioid treatment program after being kicked out of a pain clinic. “Tim” (not his real name) had been going to several different pain clinics for years, and had been misusing his medication for at least two years. He was snorting oxycodone, around 150mg per day, and failed a pill count done by his pain medicine physician. His pain management doctor dismissed him from the practice, citing a “zero tolerance,” with no referral or further help. His friends told him about our treatment program, so he came for admission.

Tim was offered a choice between methadone and buprenorphine as treatment medications. He was so vehemently opposed to buprenorphine that it made me curious. He said that buprenorphine made him so sick, he nearly died.

I had already looked at his information on the prescription monitoring program, and saw that a few months ago, the physician assistant at his pain clinic prescribed Belbuca, along with relatively high doses of the usual immediate and extended release hydromorphone. This had piqued my interest.

Belbuca is a form of buprenorphine that’s approved for the treatment of pain. We don’t use it to treat addiction because it doesn’t have FDA approval for that purpose, and therefore isn’t covered by the DATA 2000 law.

Obviously this physician’s assistant who prescribed Belbucca failed to realize it would precipitate withdrawal in this patient who had been on full opioids for months.

I asked him to describe what happened after he took the first Belbucca. He said he felt like he had immediate onset of intense nausea and repeated vomiting so bad that he called EMS to take him to the hospital. He said he thought he was dying.

It doesn’t sound like anyone who saw the patient at the hospital told my patient his reaction was completely predictable.

I tried to explain to my patient that he may not get sick with buprenorphine if it were prescribed properly, but he was having none of it. That was OK, because methadone is still a great treatment for his opioid use disorder.

Example number three:

Some patients at our opioid treatment program stabilize on buprenorphine and then transfer to an office-based setting for care in a less restrictive setting. These patients have done well for months, so we wish them well, send their requested records, and encourage them to continue getting counseling in some form.

However, for some reason, some pain clinics take these patients off buprenorphine and start short-acting opioids. I’ve blogged about this problem before, dismayed at the predictable return of their opioid use disorder. They fail pill counts, and then get kicked out of treatment, having been set up to fail by their provider.

Now, things are getting weirder.

One patient, who did well for seven months at our opioid treatment program, transferred to a local office-based buprenorphine program. She did well for a few months, until she was switched to immediate and extended-release hydromorphone, which had been her drug of choice when she was in active addiction.

This patient predictably lost control of how she was taking this hydromorphone, started injecting it, and failed a pill count. Her doctor then told her she must go for an assessment at a substance abuse treatment facility in order to continue being prescribed hydromorphone.

Ummm…here’s the thing…she was started on buprenorphine in the first place because she had an opioid use disorder.

I’m not saying every patient with opioid use disorder immediately loses control of their medication if they’re prescribed opioids. But after less than a year of recovery from severe, intravenous opioid use disorder, you don’t have to be psychic to predict this would happen. Handing this patient a bottle of her drug of choice with a thirty-day supply triggered a relapse back to intravenous drug use.

Example number four:

I’ve saved the craziest for last. This example is tragic, both because of the bad patient outcome, and because so many doctors dropped the ball on this patient.

The patient, who developed opioid use disorder during treatment of chronic pain syndrome, developed severe mid-back pain. He told the emergency room doctor that he had been injecting the pain pills prescribed to him by a local pain medicine practice, and the emergency department physician noted track marks on his arms.

The patient had a limited work up and was sent home with a diagnosis of non-specific back pain and referred back to his pain clinic. The patient, miserable with intense and severe pain very unlike his chronic pain, returned to that hospital’s emergency department three more times. On the next to the last time, he says he was told that the doctor would not see him because he was a pain medication seeker.

Several days later, on his last visit to the emergency department, the patient was nearly comatose, with a high fever and labs indicating sepsis, and overwhelming blood infection. The patient was immediately admitted to the hospital and started on a range on antibiotics, but failed to improve. His relative demanded transfer to the local teaching hospital, an hour away.

Upon arrival at the teaching hospital, this 44 year -old man was diagnosed with a spinal abscess that extended from the neck all the way to the end of the spinal cord. This infection had obviously started at the area of his intense back pain. His spinal cord was being bathed in pus rather than spinal fluid.

He was not expected to live.

He was taken to the operating room, where the infection was drained and washed away, and dead tissue removed. Against all odds, the patient survived, though he was a quadriplegic when he woke up after surgery.

After being treated with antibiotics for many weeks, he was sent to a physical rehabilitation hospital for months. Eventually, he regained some strength in his arms and legs, and against all odds, improved to the point he could feed himself, and could walk with great difficulty, with two canes. He was eventually released from the physical rehabilitation hospital.

Eight months since his last appointment, he went back to his pain clinic. The doctor resumed prescribing the same medications that the patient had been misusing.

Wait a minute, you will say. Surely that doctor wasn’t told about the whole IV use, spinal abscess, quadriplegia thing, right? Wrong. Records show he did know.

The patient, after trying very hard not to inject these medications, finally came to our opioid treatment program, and asked for help. He was referred to us not by our local hospital’s physicians, not by anyone at the teaching hospital, not by social workers at that hospital, not by the physical rehabilitation hospital, and not by his pain management doctor.

His friends, in treatment at our OTP for their opioid use disorder, and told him to come to us for help.

He was started on sublingual buprenorphine and has done beautifully.

One day, after he’d been on a stable dose of buprenorphine for a few weeks, I asked him what he thought when his pain management doctor offered to put her back on hydromorphone. He said, “I was surprised. I didn’t think it was a good idea, but I was in pain and in withdrawal, so I just took the prescription.”

I understood. After all his time in the hospital, this patient hadn’t had any treatment for the disease of opioid use disorder. He’d only had treatment of the sequellae of opioid use disorder.

At that time, saving his life was the most important thing. But later, why not address the original disease that caused this million-dollar hospital treatment admission? Why not direct the patient to treatment of his opioid use disorder when released from the hospital and/or physical rehab facility? Why not pause for more than a moment before writing a prescription for the same drug that caused the whole mess?

 

All physicians make mistakes, usually out of ignorance, and I’m no different. But now, the opioid addiction problem is so bad that each state is passing laws to fix the problem. Isn’t it worth passing a law that makes sure all physicians are part of the solution?

At a minimum, let’s teach all doctors that substance use disorders are diseases, and that we do have treatments available. Some treatments work better than others, and medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorder works very well. In fact, there’s more evidence to support MAT than anything they are doing in their practices. Why not refer patients with problems rather than shaming and ignoring them?

Let’s teach physicians that failure to diagnose and refer patients with substance use disorder for appropriate treatment is malpractice, just as it is for all other medical problems.

 

 

Congratulations, Spencer Clark!

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This month at the AATOD meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, Spencer Clark won the prestigious Dole-Nyswander award for service to the field. Spencer is the director of North Carolina’s SOTA (State Opioid Treatment Authority).

I’m so pleased he got this award. He’s earned it, for all the hard work he’s done to improve the quality of care given to patients at OTPs in NC.

Being SOTA director can’t be an easy job. He’s had to lead doctors, legislators, OTP owners and managers to a better plan of care for those with opioid addiction.

Spencer has been able to get OTP physicians together, so that we can educate each other about the best standards of care. I don’t know about the other groups, but getting a group of physicians to gather in one place and agree on anything is like trying to herd cats

With the help of the North Carolina Governor’s Institute, Spencer started monthly telephone conferences for all the doctors who work in North Carolina opioid treatment programs. These phone calls, led by a knowledgeable physician moderator, usually start with the presentation of a difficult case, and participants give suggestions for how best to handle the clinical vignette. Then we discuss various timely topics that complicate care to our patients with opioid use disorders.

This sounds like such a simple thing, but it’s had such a beneficial effect for the doctors who participate. This is a very specialized field, and we frequently get difficult cases fraught with medical and ethical issues. Now physicians in North Carolina have access to other doctors with similar specialized knowledge, to discuss difficult and complex cases.

It can be lonely, working as a physician at an opioid treatment program. We don’t usually have a lot of contact with doctors sharing our common vision of how to treat opioid use disorder. More often, OTP doctors are criticized by other community physicians, usually behind our backs, out of ignorance of our work.

SOTA and the Governor’s Institute, along with the North Carolina chapter of ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine) also started sponsoring yearly meetings each spring. These several-day conferences have had excellent speakers from around the nation. I’ve learned so much at these meetings, and look forward to it every year.

Spencer Clark set up an unofficial physician mentoring program as well. I help out in the Western part of the state, and another physician is available in the Eastern part of the state. We are available at all times to answer any questions OTP physicians might have. It’s a state-wide version of the national program Providers Clinical Support System (PCSS), run by the American Association of Addiction Psychiatry, which provides guidance for physicians across the nation who treat opioid use disorders with buprenorphine, methadone, or naltrexone.

Since there can be regional variations in drug use problems, a physician in the same region can sometimes add complementary perspective to what a national expert provides.

Spencer Clark came to his office in 2007. At that time, I was pulling my hair out because I’d just become medical director of a large, multi-site opioid treatment program, and we had too many patient deaths. Even one is too many, and I remember we had three patients die in one weekend, over Easter weekend that year.

I analyzed data from all the decedents, and it was obvious we had to change some things about our treatment program. I told the administrators of this program that we had to start being open all days of the week, and that we could not give take homes to brand-new patients. We had to lower starting doses, and start scrutinizing benzodiazepine-using patients to see if they could be started safely in treatment, or needed inpatient detoxification first, to get off benzodiazepines. I had a few other things to recommend, and to their credit, the administrators began to implement some of my ideas.

But later that year, when Spencer Clark came to SOTA, he sent a letter to the president of the opioid treatment program, wanting to know – in essence – what in God’s name was going on with these overdose deaths??

I remember one administrator lamenting that Spencer had taken over as SOTA director. He said of Spencer’s letter, “This will blow over. This isn’t going to amount to much.” I remember thinking, “OK, you’re wrong. Now we appear to have a SOTA director who gives a damn about what’s going on in the methadone clinics.”

Spencer made my job easier. With that pressure from the SOTA, I believe administrators were more willing to implement needed changes. I still wasn’t able to get them to provide buprenorphine in addition to methadone, but other changes reduced our death rate.

Spencer helped the physicians who work at OTP become allies. We set a standard of care, giving individual doctors more clout with the OTP owners. We can now point to what other physicians are doing to improve patients care and safety. And if an OTP owner is intransigent, refusing to make a needed change, that’s information for the physician. She then had to decide what to do – keep working at that program, or look for a greener pasture.

Spencer’s efforts are always focused on making treatment for patients with opioid use disorder better and safer. He may disagree with individuals and agencies about what that looks like in actual practice, but his driving intent is always about the patients. I’ve heard he’s occasionally ruffled some feathers at the quarterly OTP managers meetings. Therefore, it’s a tribute to his tact that this same group nominated him for the Dole-Nyswander award. He’s able feather-ruffle in a way that’s respectful, and clearly motivated by a desire to improve the health of patients with opioid-use disorder.

Well done, Spencer! You richly deserve this award.

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The Kratom Craze

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Over the last week, I’ve had a handful of patients entering opioid addiction treatment tell me they were taking kratom along with other opioids. For the most part, these patients say they use kratom as a back-up when they can’t find other opioids, in order to ward off opioid withdrawal.

Patients say they buy it online or at head shops. Most say they buy it in a powdered form, to dissolve into hot water and drink as a tea, or take capsules packed with the greenish powder. Some patients say liquid forms of kratom are also available.

I’ve blogged about kratom before, but only in the last few weeks have I seen patients who have used it.

Kratom (also called ketum or kratum) is a tree in the genus Mitrogyna, which is related to the coffee tree, and found in Southeast Asia. Kratom leaves have been used for thousands of years by natives of the area to produce stimulant and opioid effects. Fresh leaves can be chewed, or broken up to make a drink, or steeped in hot water to make a tea, as described above. Dried leaves can be smoked by users, who say low doses of kratom cause a stimulant effect. Higher doses are said to cause sedation.

Kratom’s active ingredient is mitragynine, which activates the mu opioid receptor in the human brain to cause an opioid-like effect. Like other opioids, this compound in the kratom tree relieves pain and causes euphoria. Some rat studies demonstrated more potent analgesia from mitragynine than morphine. It’s structurally different than other opioids, and unlikely to show as an opioid on traditional drug testing.

Rat studies also showed less respiratory depression than other opioids, possibly be due to kratom’s activity at the kappa opioid receptor. This drug also has adrenergic and serotonergic activity, so it has a complicated method of action. The increased adrenergic effect of the drug may give users a feeling of energy, like the other stimulants cocaine and amphetamines. This property has led some people to say kratom could be a treatment for methamphetamine addiction.

Because of its opioid-like effects, kratom can be used recreationally for the high it produces.

If you google “buy kratom,” more than a million websites appear, offering to sell all sorts of varieties of kratom, and extolling its properties of, “Pain relief, Energy, Prolonged Sexual Intimacy, and Mood Support.” The websites attempting to sell kratom say it’s safe because it’s natural, and that it is a treatment for both pain and addiction.

So is it safe?

First of all, just because a substance is found in nature does not mean that it is safe for human consumption. That’s ridiculous. Plenty of plants, herbs, and other substances found in nature are harmful, even lethal. Hemlock, deadly nightshade, castor bean, oleander…those are a few that come to my mind.

Secondly, “natural” does not mean non-addictive In fact, many of our addicting drugs are derived from nature, like opium, cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine. We learned to concentrate the active ingredients over the years to make them even more addictive.

We don’t have safety data on whether kratom is safe or not, because we don’t have studies about this substance. Like so many medications that are derived from plants, it is possible the mitragynine found in this plant could have helpful properties, and I would favor further investigation. But right now, we don’t have information about safety. For further reading, I’d suggest this excellent review article: http://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2015/968786/

As above, there has been some suggestion in animal studies that mitragynine causes less respiratory depression, so it is possible it’s less risky than other mu opioids.

If you go online, you can find testimonials from people saying it helps them with pain and addiction.

Also consider that there’s no quality control of the stuff being sold as kratom. Online or in head shops, what’s labelled as kratom may or not contain kratom.

For the patients I’ve seen, they appear to use kratom as one opioid of many, and I haven’t heard any of them say it’s helped them come off of opioids. (But then, I wouldn’t expect to see people with that experience, would I? If a person was able to stop opioids with kratom, they wouldn’t come to an opioid addiction treatment center.)

To me, kratom seems like another opioid-like substance with the potential to cause addiction, and there’s no way to know what you are really buying, either online or at head shops.

 

 

5 Year Blog Anniversary

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I never imagined my blog would be going strong after five years. Initially, I started it to promote I book that a wrote. The book did OK, but the blog has been so much more interesting and rewarding. I hope I’ve helped educate my readers, because they surely have educated me. I have a much better idea what’s going on out there in “addiction land.” My patients educate me about local trends, but blog commenters give a more universal view.

Thanks for reading and let’s continue our education of each other.

Harm Reduction

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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

NSDUH Data Released

NSDUH Data on Heroin Use

NSDUH Data on Heroin Use

Each fall, the National Survey on Drug Use in Households releases data from their yearly survey, and data from 2013 is now being released. It’s a gradual process, with more information released as data is analyzed and compared to years past.

The NSDUH report compiles data collected about drug and alcohol use in the nation and in individual states. This annual survey of around 70,000 people in the U.S. over age 12 also collects data on mental health in the U.S. This research information is collected from phone calls to individual households and is the primary source of data on the abuse of drug including alcohol in the U.S. Data can be compared to past years to look at drug use trends, among other information.

Since this survey is conducted on household members, some scientists say the data underestimates drug use since its methods exclude populations living in institutions such as prisons, hospitals and mental institutions. Such populations are known to have the highest rates of drug use and addiction. But the annual NSDUH report is still one of the best sources of information we have at present. This data can be evaluated for new trends of drug use and abuse, and can help direct funding toward problem areas. Researchers use this data to assess and monitor drug use, as well as the consequences.

Data from 2013 shows that around 9.4% of U.S. citizens use illicit drugs at least monthly. This includes marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, and misused prescription medication. This rate of use hasn’t changed much over the past two years, but it’s a little higher than it was ten years ago.

Of the people who used illicit drugs at least monthly, two thirds used marijuana as their only illicit drug. Marijuana, not surprisingly, is still the most frequently used illicit drugs in the nation. This percentage of people using marijuana has been slowly but steadily increasing over the past ten years. Interestingly, the number of people surveyed who said they were daily or near-daily users of marijuana increased from 5.1 million in 2007 to 8.1 million in 2013.

I do not see this as a good thing, but my blog is dedicated to opioid addiction and its treatment, so I’ll let you make up your own minds about marijuana.

I was happy to see that non-medical use of all prescription medication continued to drop, though slowly, down to 2.5% of the population. Non-medical use of prescription opioids specifically has also shown a slight drop from 2009 to 2013. I hope this means people (and their doctors) are beginning to understand the dangers of illicit opioid use. Tranquilizer use also has shown a slow decline over the past three years, a trend I hope will continue.

Of the group of people who said they were non-medical users of opioids, over half still said they obtained their drug from friends or family, for free. Around 11% bought their drug from a friend or family member, and 21% got the drug from one doctor. Only 4.3% said they got their prescription opioid pills from a drug dealer or a stranger, and only .1% bought them off the internet.

This data tells us – again this year – that the main suppliers of illicit opioids aren’t drug dealers on the corner or dealers over the internet. Main suppliers are friends and family members of the user.

Why is this still a thing people do?? This has got to stop. Sharing medication, controlled substance or not, is dangerous – not to mention illegal. Sharing medication causes harm. You aren’t helping anyone by sharing.

The youngest age group surveyed, aged 12 to 17, showed a drop in the non-medical use of prescription opioids over the last decade, from 3.2% in 2003 to 1.7% in this 2013 survey. That’s reason to hope that youngsters now either have less opioids available to them or that they know how damaging opioid addiction can be. I hope this drop forecasts an overall drop in the number of people addicted to opioids in the coming years.

Now for the bad news: NSDUH shows that heroin use continues to rise, from around 373,000 people in 2007 to 681,000 people in 2013. That’s not quite a doubling over the past six years, but pretty close. That strongly correlates with what I see at my work; people addicted to opioid pain pills tell me it’s harder to find opioids, and also more expensive. Mexican drug cartels have seen this, and moved in to supply heroin as an alternative to opioid pain pills.

It’s an unintended and unfortunate consequence of efforts to limit illicit prescription opioid use.

This 2013 survey showed that there were an estimated 2.8 million new users of illicit drugs in people over age 12. Over 70% of these new illicit drug users started with marijuana. Only about 13% of new users started with non-medical use of opioid pain pills, and this is a lower percentage than in past NSDUH surveys.

This NSDUH data will be released in other reports as more analysis is done on this information.