Conference Coverage

Pediatricians uniquely qualified to treat adolescents with opioid use disorder



In the opinion of Jason E. Reynolds, MD, PhD,, primary care pediatricians are uniquely qualified to treat adolescents with opioid use disorder (OUD).

Pediatrician, Wareham, Mass. Doug Brunk/MDedge News

Dr. Jason E. Reynolds

“One of the real benefits of treatment in primary care is that it removes the stigma so that these patients aren’t isolated into addiction clinics; they’re being treated by providers that they know well and that their family knows well,” Dr. Reynolds, a pediatrician who practices in Wareham, Mass., said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “That feels a lot better to them, and I think it makes a statement in the community that these people don’t need to be isolated. Anything we can do to reduce the stigma of opioid use disorder is important. We in primary care are well suited to manage chronic disease over the continuum.”

In 2016, the AAP released a policy statement advocating for pediatricians to consider providing medication-assisted treatment to patients with OUD (Pediatrics. 2016;138[3]e20161893). The statement cited results from a nationally representative sample of 345 addiction treatment programs serving adolescents and adults. It found that fewer than 50% of those programs used medication-assisted treatment (J Addict Med. 2011;5[1]:21-7). “When they looked at patients who actually had opioid dependence, the numbers were even lower,” said Dr. Reynolds, who was not involved with the study. “In fact, 34% of opioid-dependent patients received medication-assisted treatment. When they stratified it by age, the younger you were, the less likely you were to be treated. Only 11.5% of youth under 18 are actually being treated. We know that youth with opioid use disorders have very bad health outcomes over their lifetime. The fact that such few patients receive what is considered to be a gold-standard treatment is really alarming.”

Dr. Reynolds acknowledged that many perceived barriers exist to providing treatment of OUD in pediatric primary care, including the fact that patients with addiction are not easy to treat. “They can be manipulative and can make you feel both sad for them and angry at them within the same visit,” he said. “They also have complex needs. For many of these patients, it’s not just that they use opiates; they have medical problems and psychological diagnoses, and oftentimes they have social issues such as being in foster care. They also may have issues with their parents, employer, or their school, so there are many needs that need to be juggled. That can be overwhelming.”

However, he said that such patients “are actually in our wheelhouse, because as primary care physicians we’re used to coordinating care. These are the perfect patients to have a medical home. We manage chronic disease over the continuum of care. This is a chronic disease, and we have to help patients.”

Another perceived barrier for treating adolescents with OUD relates to reimbursement. While most patients with OUD have insurance, Dr. Reynolds finds that the requirement for prior authorizations can result in delay of treatment and poses an unnecessary burden on care providers. “It’s an administrative task that either the physician or the office staff has to take care of,” he said. “Interestingly, reimbursement ranks as a low concern in studies of buprenorphine providers. That tells me that this is not a major hurdle.”

Pediatricians also cite a lack of knowledge as a reason they’re leery of providing OUD treatment in their office. “They wonder: ‘How do I do this? What’s the right way to do it? Are there best practices?’ ” Dr. Reynolds said. “There’s a feeling that it must be dangerous, the idea that if I don’t do it right I’m going to hurt somebody. The reality is, buprenorphine is no more dangerous than any of the other opiates. Technically, because it’s a partial agonist, it’s probably less dangerous than some of the opiates that we prescribe. It’s no more dangerous than prescribing amitriptyline for chronic pain.”

One key resource, the Providers Clinical Support System (, provides resources for clinicians and family members, education and training, and access to mentoring. Another resource, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (, includes clinical practice guidelines, online courses and training on the treatment of OUD, and sample consent and opioid-withdrawal forms. Dr. Reynolds characterized learning how to treat patients with OUD as no different than learning step therapy for asthma. “Once you look into it, you realize that there’s no sort of magic behind this,” he said. “It’s something that any of us can do. Staff can be trained. There are modules to train your staff into the protocols. Learn the knowledge and put it into action. Have the confidence and the knowledge.”

The Drug Addiction and Treatment Act of 2000 set up the waiver process by which physicians can obtain a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Agency after completing an 8-hour CME course on substance abuse disorder and buprenorphine prescribing. To receive a waiver to practice opioid dependency treatment with approved buprenorphine medications, a clinician must notify the SAMHSA Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of their intent to practice this form of medication-assisted treatment.

Dr. Reynolds acknowledged that not every practice is equipped to provide psychosocial support for complex patients with OUD. “When I first started this in 2017, I wanted to make sure that my patients were in some form of counseling,” he said. “However, the medical literature shows that you can treat OUD without counseling, and some of those patients will be fine, too. There have been reports that just going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings weekly has been shown to improve the effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment.”

For clinicians concerned about having backup when they face challenging cases, data shows that having more than one waivered provider in a practice is associated with completing waiver training. “This makes sense,” Dr. Reynolds said. “We like to be able to discuss our cases with colleagues, but a lot of us don’t want to be on call 365 days a year for our patients. Shared responsibility makes it easier. Access to specialty telemedicine consult has also been identified as a facilitator to physicians prescribing medical-assisted therapy.”

He concluded his presentation by noting that increasing numbers of OUD patients are initiating buprenorphine treatment in the ED. “That takes advantage of the fact that most of these patients present to the emergency room after receiving Narcan for an overdose,” Dr. Reynolds said. “In the emergency room, they’re counseled and instructed on how to start buprenorphine, they’re given the first dose, and they’re told to go home and avoid using any other opiates for 24 hours, start the buprenorphine, and follow up with their primary care doctor or an addiction medicine specialist in 3 days. In my community, this is what our local emergency department is doing for adult patients, except they’re not referring back to primary care. They’re referring to a hospital-based addiction medicine specialist. This is a way to increase access and get people started on buprenorphine treatment.”

Dr. Reynolds reported having no financial disclosures.

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