From the Editor

Medication treatment of opioid use disorder in primary care practice: Opportunities and limitations

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Restrictions on prescribing buprenorphine (BUP) for opioid use disorder (OUD) have been rescinded, increasing the opportunity for primary care clinicians to prescribe it. Challenges to treating OUD include the practice costs of management, gaps in clinical education, the stigmatization of patients with OUD, and barriers to insurance coverage of BUP.



The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 106,699 deaths in 2021 from drug overdose, with the majority being linked to synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and tramadol.1 This number compares with 42,795 deaths due to motor vehicle accidents and 48,183 deaths due to suicide in 2021.2,3 Most of the opioid overdose deaths occurred among people aged 25 to 64 years, the peak age of patients cared for by obstetrician-gynecologists. Among pregnant and postpartum persons, mortality due to drug overdose has increased by 81% between 2017 and 2020.4

Among pregnant and postpartum patients, drug overdose death is more common than suicide, and the risk for drug overdose death appears to be greatest in the year following delivery.5,6 In many cases, postpartum patients with OUD have had multiple contacts with the health care system prior to their death, showing that there is an opportunity for therapeutic intervention before the death occurred.7 Medication-assisted recovery for OUD involves a comprehensive array of interventions including medication, counseling, and social support. Medication treatment of OUD with BUP or methadone reduces the risk for death but is underutilized among patients with OUD.6,8 Recent federal legislation has removed restrictions on the use of BUP, increasing the opportunity for primary care clinicians to prescribe it for the treatment of OUD.9

Screening and diagnosis of OUD

Screening for OUD is recommended for patients who are at risk for opioid misuse (ie, those who are taking/have taken opioid medications). The OWLS (Overuse, Worrying, Losing interest, and feeling Slowed down, sluggish, or sedated) screening tool is used to detect prescription medication OUD and has 4 questions10:

1. In the past 3 months did you use your opioid medicines for other purposes—for example, to help you sleep or to help with stress or worry?

2. In the past 3 months did opioid medicines cause you to feel slowed down, sluggish, or sedated?

3. In the past 3 months did opioid medicines cause you to lose interest in your usual activities?

4. In the past 3 months did you worry about your use of opioid medicines?

Patient agreement with 3 or 4 questions indicates a positive screening test.

If the patient has a positive screening test, a formal diagnosis of OUD can be made using the 11 symptoms outlined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.11 The diagnosis of mild (2 to 3 symptoms), moderate (4 to 5 symptoms), or severe OUD (6 or more symptoms) is made based on the number of symptoms the patient reports.

Buprenorphine treatment of OUD in primary care

The role of primary care clinicians in the medication treatment of OUD is increasing. Using a nationwide system that tracks prescription medications, investigators reported that, in 2004, psychiatrists wrote 32.2% of all BUP prescriptions; in 2021, however, only 10% of such prescriptions were provided by psychiatrists, with most prescriptions written by non-psychiatrist physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants that year.12 Innovative telehealth approaches to consultation and medication treatment of OUD are now available—one example is QuickMD.13 Such sites are designed to remove barriers to initiating medication treatment of OUD.

The role of primary care clinicians in the management of OUD using BUP and buprenorphine-naloxone (BUP-NAL) has increased due to many factors, including:

  • the removal of US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) barriers to prescribing BUP
  • the epidemic of OUD and the small size of the addiction specialist workforce, necessitating that primary care clinicians become engaged in the treatment of OUD
  • an increase in unobserved initiation of BUP among ambulatory patients, and a parallel decrease in cases of observed initiation in addiction center settings
  • the reframing of OUD as a chronic medical problem, with many similarities to diabetes, obesity, dyslipidemia, and hypertension.

Similar to other diseases managed by primary care clinicians, OUD requires long-term chronic treatment with a medicine that, if taken as directed, provides excellent outcomes. Primary care clinicians who prescribe BUP also can optimize longitudinal care for comorbid disorders such as hypertension and diabetes, which are prevalent in people with OUD.

In 2019, New Jersey implemented new guidelines for the treatment of OUD, removing prior authorization barriers, increasing reimbursement for office-based OUD treatment, and establishing regional centers of excellence. The implementation of the new guidelines was followed by a marked increase in BUP prescribers among primary care clinicians, emergency medicine physicians, and advanced practice clinicians.14

To estimate the public health impact of BUP prescribing by primary care clinicians, investigators simulated patient outcomes in 3 scenarios15:

1. primary care clinicians refer patients to addiction specialists for OUD treatment

2. primary care clinicians provide BUP services in their practice

3. primary care clinicians provide BUP and harm reduction kits containing syringes and wound care supplies in their practice.

Strategies 2 and 3 resulted in 14% fewer deaths due to opioid overdose, an increased life expectancy of approximately 2.7 years, and reduced hospital costs. For strategy 3, the incremental cost per life-year saved was $34,400. The investigators noted that prescribing BUP in primary care practice increases practice costs.15

Treatment with BUP reduces death from opioid overdose, improves patient health, decreases use of illicit opioids, and reduces patient cravings for opioids. BUP is a safe medication and is associated with fewer adverse effects than insulin or warfarin.16

Continue to: Methadone treatment of OUD...


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