Our 'Suboxone Patients'

Tom G. Bartol, NP


May 15, 2018

Recently, the words "opioid epidemic" have appeared before us daily. The epidemic has become a key target of policymakers and healthcare providers. Treatment with buprenorphine-naloxone (Suboxone) has received considerable attention, and it's not uncommon to hear clinicians refer to patients undergoing this treatment as their "Suboxone patients."

But is this a disservice to those patients? Even as we have avoided labeling people with addiction by the disease they have (eg, "opioid addict"), and instead refer to them as having "opioid use disorder," calling them "Suboxone patients" persists in healthcare. The remarks are not typically negative or disparaging; usually they are made casually, with reference to liking their "Suboxone patients" or hailing the successes the clinicians are seeing with this treatment.

When I was a student, I was taught not to label my patients as their diseases. For example, we shouldn't refer to patients with diabetes as "diabetics." The same is true of people affected by addiction. I can't think of any other group of patients we refer to by the medication they are taking. We don't talk about our "Lipitor patients," our "Prozac patients," or our "metformin patients."

What we say affects reality and how we respond to it. Medication-assisted treatment is only one element of the management of opioid use disorder. It assists us in the comprehensive treatment of these patients, which may also involve cognitive-behavioral therapy and other strategies aimed at treating the whole person. If we label our patients as the medication they are taking, the focus can become the medication and not the comprehensive addiction treatment that continues long after the medication is stopped.

It will take a conscious effort, but I believe that it is important to avoid referring to patients with opiate use disorder or addiction by the name of the medication they receive. They deserve a term that accurately reflects the condition for which they are being treated.


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