Most popular posts of 2015 – #3 – The treatment system is failing opiate addicts

Doha15Stories like this are getting a lot of attention lately:

State Sen. Chris Eaton is planning to introduce legislation to encourage opiate treatment providers and doctors to break with an abstinence-based model and embrace evidence-based practices for treating addiction, the Minnesota Democrat told The Huffington Post.

I want to make it clear that I know nothing of Senator Eaton and am not questioning her motives.

If this was really motivated by a desire to spread evidence-based treatments, there’d be another, more interesting debate brewing.

That debate would be whether Senator Eaton should introduce legislation requiring that Physician Health Programs (PHP) start treating addicted health professionals with maintenance medications.

I doubt Senator Eaton wants that. I doubt she even knows much about Physician Health Programs. Her source of information about opioid addiction treatment was the Huffington Post article that painted abstinence-based treatment as hopelessly anti-evidence and ineffective while painting maintenance medications as THE answer to this problems that’s been with us for ages.

Why would she want to change opiate addiction treatment for the general population, but not for doctors? Because the treatment system for the general population is failing addicts and their families while the Physician Health Programs are producing outstanding outcomes.

Is the difference that one is abstinence-based while the other uses maintenance medications? No.

The difference is that PHPs get treatment and recovery support of an adequate quality, intensity and duration while the general population does not.

Debra Jay identified 8 essential ingredients in PHPs:

  1. Positive rewards and negative consequences
  2. Frequent random drug testing
  3. 12 step involvement and an abstinence expectation
  4. Viable role models and recovery mentors
  5. Modified lifestyles
  6. Active and sustained monitoring
  7. Active management of relapse
  8. Continuing care approach

PHPs provide treatment, recovery support and monitoring for up to 5 years and 85% of participants have no relapses. Of the 15% who relapse, most of them have only one relapse over that 5 year period.

Will maintenance medications improve treatment for the general population? It’s hard to imagine they will when they have the same retention problems that abstinence-based treatments have. Further, most of the treatment delivered with maintenance medications suffers from the same problem as abstinence-based treatment– inadequate quality, intensity and duration. (By duration, I mean the accompanying behavioral support as well as retention on the medication.)

So . . . this solution really focuses on the wrong problem.

The problem isn’t that treatment is abstinence-based. The problem is that abstinence-based and maintenance treatments too often do not provide adequate quality, intensity and duration.

So, why advocate to spread access to a treatment we won’t use on addicted physicians rather than spread access the gold standard of care that addicted physicians receive? That’s the danger of advocacy journalism that is dressed up as objective reporting.

I’m grateful to work in a place the works so hard to increase access to treatment and recovery support of an adequate quality, intensity and duration.

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