Conference Coverage

Emergency physicians not yet embracing buprenorphine for opioid users



– Emergency physicians can be persuaded to follow a recommended strategy to prescribe buprenorphine to patients with opioid addictions and to refer them to follow-up care, Kathryn F. Hawk, MD, said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry.

“People are willing to change their practices and evolve as long as they have the support to do so,” Dr. Hawk, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., said at the meeting.

Dr. Hawk highlighted a landmark 2015 study led by Yale colleagues that compared three strategies to treating patients with opioid use disorder in the emergency department. Researchers randomly assigned 329 patients to 1) referral to treatment; 2) brief intervention and facilitated referral to community-based treatment services; and 3) emergency department-initiated treatment with buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) plus referral to primary care for 10-week follow-up.

At 30 days, 78% of patients in the third group were in addiction treatment vs. 37% in the first group and 45% in the second group. (P less than .001). However, the percentage of patients in the groups who had negative urine screens for opioids were not statistically different (JAMA. 2015. Apr 28;313[16]:1636-44).

Both the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) and the American College of Medical Toxicology have endorsed the use of buprenorphine in the ED “as a bridge to long-term addiction treatment,” said Dr. Hawk, who also is affiliated with Yale New Haven Hospital.

Emergency department physicians, however, have been reluctant to start prescribing buprenorphine and get more deeply involved in referrals to care, said E. Jennifer Edelman, MD, associate professor of general internal medicine at Yale. She described the results of a 2017-2019 survey of 268 medical professionals at urban emergency departments in Seattle, Cincinnati, New York City, and Baltimore. Only 20% of the survey respondents said they were “ready” to initiate the buprenorphine treatment protocol.

Researchers also held focus groups with 74 clinicians who offered insight into their hesitation. “That’s not something that we’re even really taught in medical school and certainly not in our training as emergency physicians,” one faculty member said. “It is this detox black box across the street, and that’s how it is in many places.”

Another faculty member expressed regret about the current system: “I feel like this is particularly vulnerable patient population [and] we’re just saying, ‘Here’s a sheet. Call some numbers. Good luck.’ That’s the way it feels when I discharge these folks.” And a resident said: “We can’t provide all of that care up front. It’s just too time-consuming, and there are other patients to see.”

But not all of the findings were grim.

“There was broad recognition that the status quo was unacceptable, and emergency medicine physicians were excited about an opportunity to do more,” Dr. Edelman said.

According to her, strategies aimed at boosting the Suboxone approach include establishing protocols, and providing leadership support and resources. Addiction psychiatrists also can be helpful, she said.

“Let’s think about partnering together to bridge that gap,” she said. One idea: Invite emergency physicians to observe a treatment initiation.

“Showing how you counsel patients to start medication at home would be really a wonderful way to facilitate practices in the emergency department,” she said.

Another idea, she said, is to “give them feedback on their patients.” If an emergency physician refers a patient and they walk in the door, “let them know how they did. That’s going to be really, really powerful.”

ACEP and the American Society of Addiction Medicine have created a tool aimed at helping facilitate the use of buprenorphine and naloxone in the emergency department.

Dr. Hawk and Dr. Edelman reported no relevant disclosures.

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