Addiction – how are we being played?



Sometimes, you come across an article that makes you cringe. After this initial reaction – and if we are up for the challenge – we realize that this information can help us grow by pushing our clinical approach in new directions.

This is the experience I had with an article by Dr. Daniel Bouland and colleagues that explored the ways in which people struggling with addiction obtain prescription medications (J Addict Med. 2015 Jul-Aug;9[4]:281-5).

Dr. Jon O. Ebbert

Dr. Jon O. Ebbert

In this semiquantitative qualitative study, investigators interviewed 36 patients in a residential addiction treatment program who obtained prescriptions from clinicians in support of an addiction. Types of medications obtained by respondents were opioids (97.2%), sedative hypnotics (47.4%), and amphetamines (5.5%).

Patients reported obtaining prescriptions from clinicians because it was perceived to be “legal” – even though 75% of them faked symptoms, several falsified MRI images of an injury, and some used old or forged prescriptions. One patient paid a physician outright for the medication.

Eight percent of patients physically harmed themselves to obtain prescriptions by doing things such as cutting themselves to put blood in the urine, hitting their head against the wall to the point of unconsciousness, and undergoing unnecessary surgery.

Primary care clinicians and pain specialists were viewed as the easiest sources of medication. Most patients used “mom and pop” pharmacies, visited multiple pharmacies, and paid in cash. Importantly, 67% of patients said that an intervention could have changed their behaviors.

I think I knew this, but it challenged me to see it in writing. I appreciated the honesty of these individuals and was struck by the fact that almost two-thirds suggested that an intervention could have transformed them.

But how to start this conversation?

The last time I expressed concern about a patient’s allergy to any pain medication – except oxycodone and the potentially toxic doses of ibuprofen and acetaminophen that didn’t “touch it” – I was the recipient of seething rage and hostility.

Addiction treatment is hard, diagnosing addiction in daily primary care practice is harder, and holding up a mirror to a patient’s prescription drug habits requires protective body armor. That’s why not many of us do it.

So, now that we have guidelines for chronic opioids, we need best practices for acute visits presenting with x-rays of broken animal bones labeled with their name handwritten on duct tape.

Are we up for urine drug screens for every controlled substance prescription on nonestablished patients every time? Probably not, but we have to start somewhere.

At least it might start a conversation when we can say: “We do this for all of our patients, we are not singling you out. Is there anything you would like to talk about before we complete this test?”

Most importantly, once we make a diagnosis of prescription drug abuse, we need resources to which to refer them and health insurance to help cover the cost for this care.

Dr. Ebbert is professor of medicine, a general internist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a diplomate of the American Board of Addiction Medicine. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Mayo Clinic. The opinions expressed in this article should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition nor should they be used as a substitute for medical advice from a qualified, board-certified practicing clinician. Dr. Ebbert has no relevant financial disclosures about this article.

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