NEW ORLEANS – Physicians committed to fighting the national opioid epidemic really need to take the 8-hour training course on addiction treatment required to obtain a Drug Enforcement Administration ‘X’ number, because it will enable them to prescribe buprenorphine, a drug with unique advantages for many affected patients, Ellie Grossman, MD, asserted at the annual meeting of the American College of Physicians.
Buprenorphine (Subutex) is one of the three medications approved for treatment of opioid use disorder (OUD), along with methadone and naltrexone (Revia). And for certain patients, it’s clearly the best choice, according to Dr. Grossman, a general internist at Harvard Medical School, Boston, and the primary care lead for behavioral health integration at the Cambridge (Mass.) Health Alliance.
The DEA X number certification process, which entails obtaining a waiver through SAMHSA – the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – is bureaucratic. It’s unpopular with many physicians. But it’s well worth 8 hours of an internist’s time to get the waiver and gain the ability to prescribe buprenorphine.
“The requirement is admittedly clunky, and many people have strong feelings about whether this is a regulation that should exist,” according to Dr. Grossman. “I myself didn’t need to have special training to prescribe methadone, a full opioid agonist that my patients could easily die from. But I did have to undergo an 8-hour training to prescribe buprenorphine, and it’s much harder to die from that drug.”
She addressed which of the three medications for OUD is the best fit in a given patient, the appropriate treatment duration, and the role of adjunctive counseling, which – spoiler alert – has been cast into question by the results of a major government-funded randomized trial.
Dr. Grossman’s overriding message: “You are saving lives by getting people on medication.”
Indeed, studies have shown that patients with OUD who receive no treatment have a sixfold increase in the standardized mortality ratio, compared with the general population. Contrast that with the less than 2-fold increased risk with medication-assisted treatment and roughly a 2.5-fold increased risk when medication is given short term to cover withdrawal and then tapered and discontinued.
Other documented benefits of long-term medication-assisted treatment of patients with OUD as described in a 2014 Cochrane review include reductions in injection drug use, crime days, HIV-related risk behaviors and seroconversion, and improved health and social functioning.
Of note, those well-documented benefits apply only to methadone, a full opioid agonist, and buprenorphine, a partial agonist, because those two drugs have been around long enough to generate long-term outcome data. Naltrexone, which has a completely different mechanism of action – it’s a full opioid antagonist – has not as of yet.
Individualizing medical therapy for OUD
Physicians can’t write a prescription for methadone. The drug must be administered at a certified opioid treatment program, or OTP, otherwise known as a methadone clinic. Those clinics are highly regulated at both the federal and state levels, with lots of minutia involved. Patient counseling and drug screening are required.
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