Treating women with opioid use disorders poses unique challenges


The opioid epidemic in the United States is reaching a boiling point, with President Trump calling it a “national emergency” and instructing his administration to use all appropriate authority to respond. Experts say that women are disproportionately affected and require unique treatment approaches.

The rate of prescription opioid–related overdoses increased by 471% among women in 2015, compared with an increase of 218% among men. Heroin deaths among women have risen at more than twice the rate among men, according to a report from the Office of Women’s Health (OWH), part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

The OWH report, released in July, paints a different picture of addiction for women than for men. Women are more likely to experience chronic pain and turn to prescription opioids for longer periods of time and in higher doses. But women also become dependent at smaller doses and in a shorter period of time. Add to this the fact that psychological and emotional distress are risk factors for opioid abuse among women, but not among men, according to the report.

Bottles of pills BackyardProduction/Thinkstock
As evidence mounts of the disparity between women and men with opioid use disorder, clinicians are struggling to find effective treatment strategies, including for vulnerable populations such as pregnant women.

ACOG guidance

In August, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) updated its recommendations for treatments and best practices related to opioid use among pregnant women (Obstet Gynecol. 2017;130:e81-94).

The committee opinion, developed with the American Society of Addiction Medicine, focuses on tearing down stereotypes about women with substance use disorders that could cause patients to slip through the cracks. ACOG recommended universal screening as a part of regular obstetric care, starting with the first prenatal visit.

While screening can involve laboratory testing, the recommendations focus more on creating a comfortable environment for pregnant women to share substance use history and to have a frank conversation about what treatment options are available.

“The document highlights the use of a verbal screening tool which enables the obstetric provider to have a direct conversation with the patient about their answers,” Maria Mascola, MD, an ob.gyn. at the Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic and lead author of the ACOG committee opinion, said in an interview. “It talks about substance use and then provides an opportunity to understand what substances and how much, why these substances might be bad, why this behavior should be changed, and how obstetricians can try to help the person make those changes.”

ACOG continues to recommend medication-assisted treatment (MAT) – typically with methadone or buprenorphine – as the most effective pathway for pregnant women to deal with substance use disorders. However, in cases in which the patient does not accept treatment with an opioid agonist or the treatment is unavailable, medically supervised withdrawal can be considered. ACOG cautions that relapse rates are high (from 59% to more than 90%) and that withdrawal often involves inpatient care and intensive outpatient follow-up. But recent evidence suggests medically supervised withdrawal is not associated with fetal death or preterm delivery.

“There have been some studies looking at smaller groups that have shown pregnant women going through medically supervised withdrawals and there have been some data from those studies that indicate women may be able to successfully go through this withdrawal without harm to the baby,” Dr. Mascola said. “The information we have on medically supervised withdrawal is a small amount of data, and we definitely need more before this is a primary approach.”

Access to care

Regardless of the treatment approach, the larger issue may be accessibility of care. Just 20% of adults with an opioid use disorder get the treatment and care they need each year, according to the OWH, with access and cost cited as the primary barriers to care. This problem is likely worse in rural areas.

“Rural health care is tougher. There is less access; that is an absolute truth, and it’s a burden then for those women to travel long distances to get the care they need,” Dr. Mascola said. “I think ob.gyns. should advocate for more attention in those areas where patients are underserved.”

One potential solution is for ob.gyns. to become certified in providing buprenorphine, which would allow physicians in rural areas to dispense these approved pharmacotherapies to patients who would otherwise be unable to have the proper treatment and follow-up necessary to prevent relapse, Dr. Mascola said.

There is already some federal funding available for this approach. In 2016, the Health Resources and Services Administration awarded $94 million to health centers across the country to expand substance use services, specifically increasing screening for substance use disorders, improving access to medication-assisted treatment, and training clinicians. Similarly, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently announced it will allocate an additional $485 million to states through the State Targeted Response to the Opioid Crisis Grants to fund medication-assisted treatment and other services.

Unique challenges

Treating women with opioid use disorder isn’t just about identifying the best treatment approach. Social factors appear to play a larger role among women.

Dr. Hendree Jones of the University of North Carolina Courtesy Mary Lyde Parker/UNC

Dr. Hendree Jones

“Child care can be a huge barrier for engaging in treatment, which tends to be an additional challenge, more for women,” Hendrée Jones, PhD, professor of ob.gyn. at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and executive director UNC Horizons, a drug treatment program for women and drug-exposed children, said in an interview.

“Another difference with women over men is the prevalence of sexual trauma, as well as being in unhealthy relationships where the women are more likely to be enticed into leaving treatment,” she added.

Trauma among women with substance abuse disorders is prevalent, with 55%-99% of women reporting experiencing some form of trauma, compared with 36%-51% of the general population, according to the OWH report.

Beyond exploratory research, there needs to be a major shift in the public perception of opioid substance use, which currently does not approach the disorder as a chronic disease, according to Dr. Jones.

“The treatment process cannot just involve a detoxification program and then send patients off because that will commonly just end in relapse.” Dr. Jones said. “We need to approach substance use disorders with a recovery-oriented system of care in order to create a true safety net they can rely on.”

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