From the Journals

Rural treatment of opioid use disorder increasingly driven by nonphysician workforce



Nurse practitioners and physician assistants, rather than physicians, are the clinicians who have boosted capacity for buprenorphine prescribing in rural America, according to a study in a rural health–focused issue of the journal Health Affairs.

In the face of an ongoing crisis of opioid use disorder, and associated overdoses and deaths that have spared no sector of the U.S. population, the federal government expanded its waiver program for buprenorphine prescribing in 2017. The waiver expansion allows nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) – along with clinical nurse specialists, certified registered nurse anesthetists, and certified nurse-midwives – to use the drug for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder after completing 24 hours of mandated training; physicians are required to complete 8 hours of training to receive their waiver.

From 2016 to 2019, capacity for MAT in rural areas increased, with the number of clinicians with buprenorphine waivers more than doubling. Of the newly waivered prescribers accounting for this 111% increase, more than half were NPs and PAs.

In many areas, NPs and PAs led the way forward, wrote the study’s lead author Michael L. Barnett, MD, and coauthors, noting in the abstract accompanying the paper that “NPs and PAs accounted for more than half of this increase and were the first waivered clinicians in 285 rural counties with 5.7 million residents.” Overall, the proportion of people living in a county without a waivered clinician has decreased by 36% since NPs and PAs were permitted to obtain waivers.

SAMHSA data identifies trends

In an in-depth interview, Dr. Barnett, an internal medicine physician and health services researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, said the issue today is “not so much continuing to dissect the risks and benefits of opioids as a treatment for pain, but more trying to address the current overdose crisis, and the fact that our patient treatment infrastructure is woefully inadequate for the magnitude of the problem that we face.”

Dr. Barnett’s chief intention for this study, he said, was to generate information that will drive policy to implement effective opioid treatment. He’d always been interested in models of care delivery that move beyond seeing just the physician-patient dyad.

“There are a whole range of nonphysician providers that are probably better at providing many different types of care – things that physicians aren’t necessarily that well trained to do,” he said.

Expansion of buprenorphine waivers to NPs and PAs, said Dr. Barnett, presented “a very interesting opportunity to see: How does a nonphysician workforce respond to a new practice opportunity, to really be engaged in areas that many physicians really were neglecting?”

The researchers used information drawn from what Dr. Barnett characterized as a “gold-standard” dataset maintained by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They found that, by March 2019, 52% of U.S. rural residents lived in counties with at least one NP or PA holding a buprenorphine waiver, though there was wide geographic variation: Every county in Maine and New Hampshire had waivered NPs or PAs, but in Tennessee, just 3 of 95 counties had an NP or PA with a waiver.


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