Posts Tagged ‘stigma of MAT’

De-stigmatize the Doctors

 

 

 

 

As our opioid addiction epidemic rumbles on, carrying an avalanche of overdose deaths, people are asking why doctors who are authorized to prescribe buprenorphine are not doing so. Many of these physicians, interested enough to take an eight-hour course in how to prescribe buprenorphine in an office-based setting, don’t implement buprenorphine prescribing into their practices.

My last blog entry was about the obstacles identified by scientific studies as reasons why physicians don’t prescribing buprenorphine for their patients with opioid use disorders.

This blog entry is about my opinion, not about hard data. I think there are unspoken reasons why doctors don’t treat patients with this disease, the biggest being stigma.

Stigma keeps physicians from treating substance use disorders.

Starting in 1914, it was illegal for physicians to prescribe any opioid for the purpose of treating opioid addiction. Doctors went to jail for doing this. Since then, physicians have absorbed the same cultural messages as the rest of the U.S. population: addicts are bad, and doctors who want to treat addicts are probably unscrupulous. It’s difficult to reverse the attitudes of generations of physicians over a few years.

I don’t blame physicians for thinking that way, since I carried that same attitude, until I knew more about medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorders.

Most physicians don’t know about the proven, extensive benefits not only to patients but also to families and communities when addiction is treated. They must be educated, if treatment of substance use disorders is to become mainstream in primary care.

Physicians need to know that addiction medicine is now a recognized medical subspecialty, with a specialized body of knowledge, with specialized training and a board certification exam. Addiction medicine became recognized only last year, long after other specialties like allergy & immunology, preventive medicine, nuclear medicine, and genetics had recognition as specialties. I don’t point out those areas of medicine out to demean them, but to illustrate that substance use disorders affects many more patients and their families than these, yet it took many more years for recognition. I think the reason for the delay was stigma.

Physicians who want to work with patients with substance use disorders need to know they will be supported, not judged, for working in this field. At many conferences, we hear from experts from DHHS, SAMHSA, and CDC about how important it is to recruit good providers to treat patients with substance use disorders. This is helpful and encouraging, but it’s not enough.

I think it’s going to take public statements of support from state licensing boards and professional organizations for office-based treatment of opioid use disorder for physicians to be reassured that they aren’t doing something wrong or shady by treating opioid use disorders with buprenorphine.

Physicians must feel they won’t be under unfair scrutiny because they treat people with opioid use disorder.

Many physicians who might like to treat opioid use disorder with buprenorphine worry about being judged, and feel like they don’t need that kind of stress when there are so many perfectly “normal” patients with chronic disease that they can help. When I talk to them, some of them say things like, “I don’t need the extra hassle,” viewing this type of medical care as more trouble than it’s worth.

Doctors already feel a little wary. Mind you, not twenty years ago, doctors were scolded for under-treatment of pain. We were told to regard pain level as the “fifth vital sign.” We were told the risk of addition from being prescribed opioids for months to years was only about one percent. We were told by pain management experts that due to tolerance, high doses of opioids are often required, and are safe. Physicians were told they should believe what a patient said about their level of pain, and were told they had an obligation to get rid of pain.

Some of that was wrong, as it turns out. Now we know the risk of creating opioid use disorder from long-term prescribing of opioids is somewhere in the range of nine to forty-eight percent. We know that patients on higher doses of opioids are at higher risk for death.

Some doctors now find themselves reprimanded by their licensing boards for over-prescribing opioids. These doctors feel they’ve been prescribing in the exact manner recommended by the so-called pain management experts of fifteen to twenty years ago. Now they are told opioids should rarely be prescribed for chronic non-cancer pain, and that prescribing opioids at high doses isn’t good medical practice.

You can’t fault doctors for being a bit wary about any new attitude or practice that isn’t steeped in medical tradition.

You also can’t fault physicians for worrying about extra regulatory scrutiny when treating substance use disorder because there is some extra scrutiny for physicians who treat substance use disorders.

Yesterday I completed the latest form that I must submit yearly to register with my state’s department of health and human services in order to prescribe buprenorphine. I don’t think any physicians have to do that when prescribing opioids for any other disorder. Physicians with no “X” DEA number who prescribe buprenorphine “for pain,” with a wink and a nod, don’t have to submit this form.

Office-based providers of care for opioid addiction can be inspected by the DEA at any time, and we have to register with the national Department of Human Services every three years. I’m not saying this is wrong, but it is a level of scrutiny not required when physicians use controlled substances to treat other diseases.

Hassles don’t always take the form of licensing boards. Let’s not forget the phone calls from

hostile and uneducated pharmacists.

I respect pharmacists. Most are my allies, and most want to do the best thing for their patients. But I’ve received the nuttiest phone calls from pharmacists about buprenorphine prescriptions. Some pharmacists insisted I tell them exactly how long I planned to prescribe buprenorphine for a particular patient. Others say I have to put a diagnosis code on the prescription. Others won’t fill a half- day early.

My latest weird call was from a CVS pharmacist, who questioned whether my patient actually had opioid use disorder. She was worried the patient was lying to me, since the patient had never filled an opioid prescription before, per data on our state’s prescription monitoring program data.

I told the pharmacist that opioid use disorder can occur with opioids obtained from sources other than prescribed for the patient in question. Sometimes these patients use other people’s medication, or buy it on the black market. Then the pharmacist said she just had to make sure I wasn’t prescribing this buprenorphine product for pain. I said that since I used the “X” DEA number, that confirmed I was prescribing for opioid use disorder, and the “X” number was the only DEA number I wrote on this patient’s prescription.

Then the pharmacist told me I didn’t need to get an attitude with her, and that she was just trying to do her job…

I’m guilty of bad attitudes sometimes, but this wasn’t one of those times. I didn’t have a derisive tone, and was genuinely trying to educate her (so I wouldn’t get another phone call from her in the future asking these same questions). So I think she was the one with a bad attitude, towards me and my patient.

People who treat people with opioid use disorders with MAT sometimes need thick skins, much like the people with the actual disorder.

Dozens of times, when asked by another doctor what kind of medicine I practiced, I’d say “Addiction Medicine” and get a blank look. “What, you treat drug addicts?” would be the doubtful reply. Often the next question is something like, “So are you a real doctor, an M.D.?” and I have to assure them that I am.

One physician in my area tells our shared patients that I’m a legal drug dealer. I’d be tempted to discount one such report, but dozens tell me the same thing about the same doctor, so I tend to believe it’s true. Yet the few times we’ve met face-to-face, this physician says nothing to me. Sometimes I wish he would – it could open a dialogue. I have information he needs.

I’ve been judged very harshly by a few people in the 12-step community. I’ve had ex-patients, for whom I’ve prescribed methadone or buprenorphine, come up to me after they’ve entered 12-step recovery and tell me what an awful thing I did by treating them with medication. On a few occasions, those people returned to my practice to re-enter medication-assisted treatment. I do the right thing, and admit them, but it makes me feel twitchy.

Some physicians have ideas about what people with opioid use disorders are like, and worry they will bring a criminal element in their practice. In fact, recently, when I asked one doctor why he didn’t use his “X” number to treat patients with opioid use disorder, he answered that the first two patients he attempted to treat threatened his life, and he felt it was too dangerous.

I thought to myself that either this was the unluckiest doctor on the planet, or he had a terrible bedside manner. I’ve treated thousands of patients with opioid use disorders over the past fifteen years, and none have threatened my life. (I can’t say the same of my years in primary care. One soccer mom threatened bodily harm when I refused to prescribe a Z-pack for her viral respiratory infection of one day’s duration.)

I love my work because it is so rewarding. Patients actually get better, and some get better really quickly. It’s thrilling to be even a small part of their success. And they are nice people, nearly without exception. I wish I could show other physicians and providers how much fun working with people with substance use disorders can be.

Even considering the occasional hassle from pharmacists and other professionals, it’s worth it. Maybe I do have to fill out a few extra forms every year or so, and I need to be prepared for a DEA inspection at any time. Yet that’s a slight inconvenience when I see the progress my brave patients make.

Last week, a patient I’ve followed for years described his honeymoon to me. He found a well-paying job that he loves, met and married the woman of his dreams, and is working on starting a family. When I asked my usual question about his biggest source of stress, he said, “I don’t have stress. When I look back on how big a mess my life was six years ago, I have nothing at all to stress about now. I’m so blessed.”

That kind of thing makes my day.

 

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