Conference Coverage

For OUD patients, ‘a lot of work to be done’

Most Americans who need medication-assisted treatment not getting it



– For Karen J. Hartwell, MD, few things in her clinical work bring more reward than providing medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to patients with opioid use disorder.

Dr. Karen J. Hartwell is associate professor in the addiction sciences division in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston. Doug Brunk/MDedge News

Dr. Karen J. Hartwell

“Seeing people get into recovery on buprenorphine is as exciting as seeing your first person respond to clozapine, or to see a depression remit on your selection of an antidepressant,” she said at an annual psychopharmacology update held by the Nevada Psychiatric Association. “We know that medication-assisted treatment is underused and, sadly, relapse rates remain high.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 70,237 drug-related overdose deaths in 2017 – 47,600 from prescription and illicit opioids. “This is being driven predominately by fentanyl and other high-potency synthetic opioids, followed by prescription opioids and heroin,” said Dr. Hartwell, an associate professor in the addiction sciences division in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston.

There were an estimated 2 million Americans with an opioid use disorder (OUD) in 2018, she said, and more than 10 million misused prescription opioids. At the same time, prescriptions for opioids have dropped to lowest level in 10 years from a peak in 2012 of 81.3 prescriptions per 100 persons to 58.7 prescriptions per 100 persons in 2017 – total of more than 191 million scripts. “There is a decline in the number of opioid prescriptions, but there is still a lot of diversion, and there are some prescription ‘hot spots’ in the Southeast,” Dr. Hartwell said. “Heroin is a very low cost, and we’re wrestling with the issue of fentanyl.”

To complicate matters, most Americans with opioid use disorder are not in treatment. “In many people, the disorder is never diagnosed, and even fewer engage in care,” she said. “There are challenges with treatment retention, and even fewer achieve remission. There’s a lot of work to be done. One of which is the availability of medication-assisted treatment.”

Dr. Hartwell said that she knows of physician colleagues who have obtained a waiver to prescribe buprenorphine but have yet to prescribe it. “Some people may prefer to avoid the dance [of buprenorphine prescribing],” she said. “I’m here to advise you to dance.” Clinicians can learn about MAT waiver training opportunities by visiting the website of the Providers Clinical Support System, a program funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Another option is to join a telementoring session on the topic facilitated by Project ECHO, or Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes, which is being used by the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. The goal of this model is to break down the walls between specialty and primary care by linking experts at an academic “hub” with primary care doctors and nurses in nearby communities.

“Our Project ECHO at the Medical University of South Carolina is twice a month on Fridays,” Dr. Hartwell said. “The first half is a case. The second half is a didactic [session], and you get a free hour of CME.”

The most common drugs used for medication-assisted treatment of opioid disorder are buprenorphine (a partial agonist), naltrexone (an antagonist), and methadone (a full agonist). Methadone retention generally is better than buprenorphine or naltrexone. The recommended treatment duration is 6-12 months, yet many studies demonstrate that many only stay on treatment for 30-60 days.

“You want to keep patients on treatment as long as they benefit from the medication,” Dr. Hartwell said. One large study of Medicaid claims data found that the risk of acute care service use and overdose were high following buprenorphine discontinuation, regardless of treatment duration. Superior outcomes became significant with treatment duration beyond 15 months, although rates of the primary adverse outcomes remained high (Am J Psychiatry. 2020 Feb 1;177[2]:117-24). About 5% of patients across all cohorts experienced one or more medically treated overdoses.

“One thing I don’t want is for people to drop out of treatment and not come back to see me,” Dr. Hartwell said. “This is a time for us to use our shared decision-making skills. I like to use the Tapering Readiness Inventory, a list of 16 questions. It asks such things as ‘Are you able to cope with difficult situations without using?’ and ‘Do you have all of the [drug] paraphernalia out of the house?’ We then have a discussion. If the patient decides to go ahead and do a taper, I always leave the door open. So, as that taper persists and someone says, ‘I’m starting to think about using, Doctor,’ I’ll put them back on [buprenorphine]. Or, if they come off the drug and they find themselves at risk of relapsing, they come back in and see me.”

There’s also some evidence that contingency management might be helpful, both in terms of opioid negative urines, and retention and treatment. Meanwhile, extended-release forms of buprenorphine are emerging.

In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration approved Sublocade, the first once-monthly injectable buprenorphine product for the treatment of moderate-to-severe OUD in adult patients who have initiated treatment with a transmucosal buprenorphine-containing product. “The recommendations are that you have about a 7-day lead-in of sublingual buprenorphine, and then 2 months of a 300-mg IV injection,” Dr. Hartwell said. “This is followed by either 100-mg injections monthly or 300-mg maintenance in select cases. There is some pain at the injection site. Some clinicians are getting around this by using a little bit of lidocaine prior to giving the injection.”

Another product, Brixadi, is an extended-release weekly (8 mg, 16 mg, 24 mg, 32 mg) and monthly (64 mg, 96 mg, 128 mg) buprenorphine injection used for the treatment of moderate to severe OUD. It is expected to be available in December 2020.

In 2016, the FDA approved Probuphine, the first buprenorphine implant for the maintenance treatment of opioid dependence. Probuphine is designed to provide a constant, low-level dose of buprenorphine for 6 months in patients who are already stable on low to moderate doses of other forms of buprenorphine, as part of a complete treatment program. “The 6-month duration kind of takes the issue of adherence off the table,” Dr. Hartwell said. “The caveat with this is that you have to be stable on 8 mg of buprenorphine per day or less. The majority of my patients require much higher doses.”

Dr. Hartwell reported having no relevant disclosures.

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