One quiet afternoon at a mobile outreach clinic, where I had been working on the West Side of Chicago, a young man without a home to go to, and clothes he kept as clean as he could, came to get a refill of buprenorphine. The drug, which works on the same opioid receptors as heroin, was helping him feel normal. It was also probably helping to keep him alive, as a study found that taking it after an overdose was associated with a one-third reduction in all-cause mortality.
He was still using drugs, but now only a few days a week instead of multiple times a day. He had put on some weight and looked visibly healthier.
I gave him his prescription and thanked him for coming back. As he got up to leave, he turned to our outreach team and said, “Thank you for being here and caring about us. Because a lot of people don’t. They don’t care if we live or die.”
But a lot of people do care and are still failing him and others who use drugs. When I first started treating addictions, I was taught to cut people like him off treatment. We could give patients a medication, but they had to follow the rules, first and foremost to stop using drugs. Keep using, even if you were using less and your health was improving, and I would have to dismiss you from the practice. This was the kind of “tough love” that many doctors have been taught, and are, in many cases, still being taught today. Even though we know that this approach does not work.
For too long, doctors, nurses, caregivers, and the broader American public have favored abstinence only treatment, criminalization, and prohibition. The proof that this approach does not work is in the spectacular overdose crisis we are experiencing in this country, as CDC data documents. While we continue to blame drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine (and thirty years ago, crack and heroin), we fail to see how our approach contributes to these overdose deaths.
For instance, treating with buprenorphine or methadone was associated with reductions in overdose and serious opioid-related acute care use compared with detox alone. But only one in three centers offer these medications, the gold standard of care. We continue to imprison people who use drugs, even though we have known for 15 years that the risk of overdose is exponentially higher in the first few weeks after people leave prison.
Patients who use opioids safely for decades are also arbitrarily being forced off their prescriptions because too many clinicians equate opioid use with opioid addiction, despite the fact that opioid tapering was associated with increased rates of overdose. And prohibition has led to a change in the drug supply that is now dominated by methamphetamine and fentanyl, substances far more deadly than the ones we demonized and seized decades ago.
We have tried and failed to rid the country of many drugs. We never will. Human beings will seek mind-altering substances, from caffeine to alcohol to hallucinogens. But we can stop the grim massacre of people who use drugs. We have the tools. What we lack is moral clarity.
In lecture after lecture of physicians and medical students, I hear the refrain that patients are not often “ready” for treatment. There’s nothing that doctors can do, they say, if the patient doesn’t want help. Yet they do not examine why that may be. Are we offering the help that they need? Time and again I have seen that if we meet people where they are, we can help virtually anyone.
Tools for fighting the opioid crisis
The reason our policies have failed is because we have not confronted a simple truth: We must care more about saving and improving the lives of people who use drugs than stopping drug use. With that framework, the approach is clear and multifactorial. First, we must make methadone treatment less draconian. Methadone, like buprenorphine, has been associated with a large reduction in all-cause mortality for people who have a history of overdose.
In this country, to access it, however, you must go to a clinic daily for the first 90 days of treatment and jump through hoops that often make it impossible to have a job and accomplish other goals. Other countries have safely moved methadone to primary care offices, and so should we. The other main drug for opioid addiction, buprenorphine, requires a special license to prescribe, even though it is far safer than other opioids that any physician can prescribe. This requirement has been weakened, but it should be removed entirely.
Moreover, the DEA conducts regular audits of buprenorphine prescribers in an effort to prevent diversion, discouraging doctors from prescribing it. This despite the fact that it is almost impossible to overdose on buprenorphine alone, and a study suggests that diversion of buprenorphine is associated with a lower overdose risk in a community by making the medication available to more people who can benefit.
Treatment is not the only way we can help people using drugs. Naloxone, an overdose rescue drug, should be available in every first aid kit and free at pharmacies without a prescription. Clean needles and pipes for people who use can help prevent infections, potentially mitigating the severity of outbreaks. Overdose prevention sites, where people can safely use, should be opened across the country.
We need accessible drug testing so people do not accidentally overdose and so they can know what they are using. We should stop sending people to jail for drug use when we know that it is too often tantamount to a death sentence, and offer effective medical treatment to anyone who is incarcerated.
All these interventions remain controversial within medicine and in the larger culture. If our metric, however, is lives saved and harm avoided, these are sure-fire approaches.
Right now, I am focused on clinical care and changing the culture of medicine, where we have opportunities to help but too often do harm instead. The impact of a shift in mentality would be huge, because we would realize there is no one we cannot help, only millions of people we do not listen to. But this is a national crisis and requires a national response. Until we are clear that our goal should and must be to stem the mounting deaths and harms above all else, we will continue to fail.
Dr. Poorman is board certified in internal medicine and addiction medicine, assistant professor of medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago, and provides primary care and addiction services in Chicago. Her views do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer. She has reported no relevant disclosures.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
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Image 1: Elisabeth Poorman, MD, MPH
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Cite this: The Lives of Drug Users Are More Important Than Stopping Drug Use - Medscape - Nov 03, 2022.