From the Journals

Why is buprenorphine use flatlining?



Initiation of buprenorphine in hospitals in the United States has plateaued since 2018, with low retention rates of less than 25%, based on data from more than 3 million individuals who began buprenorphine between January 2016 and October 2022.

Dr. Kao-Ping Chua is a pediatrician and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. University of Michigan

Dr. Kao-Ping Chua

Opioid overdose deaths are at a record high in the United States, and many of these deaths can be prevented with medications such as buprenorphine, said lead author Kao-Ping Chua, MD, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in an interview. “However, buprenorphine cannot prevent opioid overdose deaths if patients are never started on the medication or only stay on the medication for a short time. For that reason, rates of buprenorphine initiation and retention are critical metrics for measuring how well the U.S. health care system is responding to the opioid epidemic,” he said.

“At the time we started our study, several other research groups had evaluated U.S. rates of buprenorphine initiation and retention using data through 2020. However, more recent national data were lacking,” Dr. Chua told this news organization. “We felt that this was an important knowledge gap given the many changes in society that have occurred since 2020,” he noted. “For example, it was possible that the relaxation of social distancing measures during 2021 and 2022 might have reduced barriers to health care visits, thereby increasing opportunities to initiate treatment for opioid addiction with buprenorphine,” he said.

Dr. Chua and colleagues used data from the IQVIA Longitudinal Prescription Database, which reports 92% of prescriptions dispensed from retail pharmacies in the United States. “Buprenorphine products included immediate-release and extended-release formulations approved for opioid use disorder but not formulations primarily used to treat pain,” they write.

Monthly buprenorphine initiation was defined as the number of patients initiating therapy per 100,000 individuals. For retention, the researchers used a National Quality Forum-endorsed quality measure that defined retention as continuous use of buprenorphine for at least 180 days.

A total of 3,006,629 patients began buprenorphine therapy during the study period; approximately 43% were female.

During the first years of the study period, from January 2016 through September 2018, the monthly buprenorphine initiation rate increased from 12.5 per 100,000 to 15.9 per 100,000, with a statistically significant monthly percentage change of 0.62% (P < .001).

However, from October 2018 through October 2022, the monthly percentage remained essentially the same (P = .62) with a monthly percentage change of −0.03%.

From March 2020 through December 2020, the median monthly buprenorphine initiation rate was 14.4 per 100,000, only slightly lower than the rates from January 2019 through February 2020 and from January 2021 through October 2022 (15.5 per 100,000 and 15.0 per 100,000, respectively).

Over the entire study period from January 2016 through October 2022, the median monthly retention rate for buprenorphine use was 22.2%. This rate increased minimally, with no significant changes in slope and a monthly percentage change of 0.08% (P = .04).

The study findings were limited by several factors, including a lack of data on race and ethnicity, in-clinic administration of buprenorphine, and buprenorphine dispensing through methadone outpatient programs, the researchers note. Also, data did not indicate whether some patients began buprenorphine to treat pain, they say. The timing of the flattening of buprenorphine use also suggests the influence of factors beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, they write.

However, the results were strengthened by the large sample size and suggest that efforts to date to increase buprenorphine use have been unsuccessful, the researchers write. “A comprehensive approach is needed to eliminate barriers to buprenorphine initiation and retention, such as stigma and uneven access to prescribers,” they conclude.


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