That was the key takeaway from a presentation given by Charles Reznikoff, MD, at the annual meeting of the American College of Physicians.
“There is fairly robust evidence on medication assisted therapy for OUD [opioid use disorder],” said Dr. Reznikoff of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. “MAT lowers mortality 70% in people with OUD all-cause mortality.”
He mentioned some examples in Europe, where access to medication assisted therapy has had a dramatic effect on opioid overdoses and deaths.
For example, any doctor in France since 1995 can prescribe drugs to help with OUD treatment and most buprenorphine prescriptions are written by primary care physicians. As a result, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of patients suffering from OUD receiving medication assisted treatment. In addition, there has been an 80% drop in the overdose death rate.
But Dr. Reznikoff’s recommendation on the need for more MAT was more about methadone and Suboxone, which contains a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, than the current drive to expand the distribution of naloxone alone. He noted that naloxone is good but it really serves as a short-term fix that slows the rate of overdose deaths and provides time to implement other long-term fixes. Many states are providing naloxone to first responders to help treat patients who are overdosing on opioids, but little is being done to expand access to other medication assisted treatments, he said.
“I am bringing it up to try to illustrate what is happening in American policy making that we are reaching for naloxone first and we are not reaching for MAT first,” Dr. Reznikoff said, noting that you can give naloxone to patients without changing the underlying system of care.
He also stressed the need to get more medication assisted treatment into the penal system.
“If you have opioid use disorder [and] you are incarcerated, almost nowhere in America can you get medication assisted therapy while incarcerated,” Dr. Reznikoff said. “You lose your tolerance, but you still have addiction. You are released from incarceration and your rate of death is 20-fold the average OUD rate of death in the first 2 weeks after release.”
As a counter example, he noted that Portugal in 2001 switched its approach to OUD from criminal to a public health issue and stopped incarcerating people with opioid addiction. This led to a decrease by 75% in active heroin users, and the country now boasts the lowest rate of drug-related death in Western Europe, 1/50th of the rate in America.
“We pretty strongly believe that if they were given medication while incarcerated or just not incarcerated, they would not have that 20-fold risk of death after release,” he said. “Incarceration is actually an accelerant in the opioid epidemic and we are not going to get out of this without addressing that tough issue.”
Another effective policy option that should be expanded further is the use of prescription drug monitoring programs, which can be effective in controlling the amount of prescriptions written, said Rebecca Haffajee, PhD, assistant professor, health management and policy, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor.
“We do have good evidence on the prescribing outcomes and particularly attributable to a few key features, [such as] use mandates, registration mandates, delegate access, all of those features have been shown across different types of patient populations – Medicaid, Medicare, commercially insured – to reduce overall opioid prescribing and some high risk measures, polypharmacy, doctor shopping, pharmacy shopping, those sorts of things,” noted Dr. Haffajee.
Twenty percent of state laws enacted to address the opioid crisis have involved prescription drug monitoring programs, she added.
There is not enough evidence to determine whether other laws, such as those that limit quantity and dosage levels, are effective in the fight against opioid use disorder, added Dr. Reznikoff.
The speakers did not report any conflicts.