A rational approach to opioid use disorder in primary care

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Responding with empathy

Simply recognizing that a problem exists is not enough. Once we identify problematic opioid use, we also need to know how to address it.

Managing opioid misuse behaviors requires empathy, and prescribers should consider a patient’s motivation and emotive response to counsel. For instance, the patient who skips doses and hoards pills may fear that their well-controlled pain will suddenly worsen if their doctor’s opioid prescribing becomes more restrictive as new guidelines are released.

The lesson is that safe opioid prescribing may require a more restrictive approach than was understood in prior years, but rational prescribing also means careful consideration before arbitrarily tapering or discontinuing opioids in a patient who has demonstrated benefit without evidence of harm, even if new guidelines now recommend against starting opioid therapy for similar pain syndromes. For example, the American College of Physicians released a guideline earlier this year that recommended against opioids to treat low back pain, but it did not recommend stopping opioids if patients were already taking them and benefiting from their use.11

Sometimes the best course of action is to discontinue opioid therapy. This decision may trigger a grief-like reaction in some patients and there can be distinct communication challenges during each coping phase.12 The prescriber should frame opioid prescribing discussions on the changing balance of perceived benefits, risks, and harms; in some cases, the treatment may have “failed” or no longer be appropriate, but the patient may still be suffering from pain. Further, the patient may now need help with a newly recognized substance use disorder and may be particularly vulnerable during this time.

The wrong approach, in my opinion, is to discharge the patient from care because of addiction. This approach may seem justified to the provider who feels betrayed by a patient who has used a prescription differently than intended and has thus placed everyone at risk. However, providers should not take it personally; by definition, a patient with addiction has lost control over use of a drug and may have a stronger relationship with the drug than with you. Instead, we should attempt to intervene to protect a patient’s health and chances of survival. It is critical that physicians learn to leverage treatment resources to provide the support patients need to start the long process of recovery. This may involve detoxification and rehabilitation programs, but in many cases opioid agonist therapy also has a role.

Medication-assisted therapy

Medication-assisted therapy with methadone or buprenorphine can be an extremely important part of this process and is a strategy that Modesto-Lowe et al explore in this issue of the Journal.13 As they point out, patients and providers often misunderstand the use of opioid agonists to treat opioid use disorder; many perceive this as merely substituting one form of addiction for another. However, compelling data support this approach. Studies have shown that opioid agonist therapy is associated with decreased illicit opioid use, better retention in substance use treatment programs, reduced hepatitis C and HIV seroconversion, reduced rates of criminal activity and incarceration, decreased overdose risk, and improved survival.14

Opioid agonists are not a cure-all and come with their own challenges, but for many patients they can “create the space” needed to do the real work of recovery—healing their damaged relationships with themselves, their family, and their society.

Providers need to educate themselves regarding the options available and when and how to use them. They should familiarize themselves with methadone and buprenorphine treatment programs in their community. Better yet, with only 8 hours of additional training, primary care physicians can become waivered to prescribe buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction right in the office. Treating addiction is quickly becoming part of primary care, and clinicians in practice can no longer turn a blind eye toward this problem.

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