Conference Coverage

Buprenorphine merits more attention for treatment of opioid use disorder



SAN DIEGO – Prescribing buprenorphine for the treatment of opioid use disorder requires strict discernment on the part of clinicians, Arwen Podesta, MD, said at the annual Psych Congress.

Dr. Arwen Podesta, a pychiatrist who practices in New Orleans

Dr. Arwen Podesta

She encouraged clinicians to be prepared for a visit from the Drug Enforcement Administration, understand the unique properties of buprenorphine, and make sure that patients grasp the importance of sublingual administration.

Research shows that only 5% of physicians are allowed to prescribe buprenorphine – an opioid – by way of a DEA waiver, Dr. Podesta said. About half do not prescribe the drug. Barriers to prescribing buprenorphine include factors such as low reimbursement and untrained support staff, said Dr. Podesta, a board-certified psychiatrist who subspecializes in addiction medicine and practices in New Orleans.

But she noted that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has recommended that medication-assisted therapy (MAT) – methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone – be considered in all patients with opioid use disorder. The drugs are safe and effective when used correctly, the federal agency has said.

Remember, Dr. Podesta said, that “patients taking MAT are considered to be in recovery.” In the big picture, she added, “we have to improve access to care because we have so many people who don’t have access to treatment.”

Getting permission from the DEA to prescribe buprenorphine – a schedule III controlled substance – comes with a price, Dr. Podesta said. “We have special scrutiny from the DEA,” she said. They come in and want to see your records. It sounds very punitive, although it’s their jobs.”

The best approach is to document that you know what you’re doing, she said. “It’s your job to educate them about why you’re using buprenorphine and produce the records to show that.”

Being aware of buprenorphine’s unique properties is important, she said. The drug is safer on the overdose front than are other opioids, Dr. Podesta said, but it can be very dangerous in patients without opioid tolerance. According to the DEA, as an analgesic, buprenorphine is 20-30 times more potent than morphine. Also, like morphine, patients who take buprenorphine are likely to experience euphoria, papillary restriction, and respiratory depression and sedation.

The buprenorphine/naloxone formulation is preferred to treat opioid use disorder, she noted.

The reason that naloxone, which treats opioid overdoses, is part of the drug combo is because as an add-on, it reduces the risk that buprenorphine will be crushed and snorted for an opioid high, she said. Those who take the combo drug via that method could end up with sudden and nasty withdrawal symptoms.

When the drug combo is administered sublingually, the idea is that the “good stuff” (buprenorphine) is absorbed in the mouth, while the “bad stuff” (naloxone) is harmlessly absorbed in the gut, Dr. Podesta said. This happens because the drugs are absorbed differently.

But patients can mistakenly trigger symptoms of withdrawal if, for example, they put the combo drug on their tongue and then go to sleep. “That’s a peril,” she said, and it’s important to make sure patients know what to do – and what not to do.

Dr. Podesta emphasized the importance of choosing language related to patients with addictions carefully and respectfully.

“We have stigma,” she said. “We have been saying that patients are ‘dirty’ or ‘clean,’ and if they’re ‘clean,’ they’re the opposite of ‘dirty.’ We need to change our language so patients feel less shame.”

She also suggested that clinicians drop the use of the word “contract” to describe treatment agreements between patients and clinicians. “Call it an ‘agreement,’ ” she said. “It seems more mutual and less punitive or risky for the patient to sign, especially when they’re in a precarious comfort zone.”

And consider that even the words “substance abuse” can be misleading, she said. “Many [patients] are taking the medications that the doctor prescribed and following instructions to the letter.”

Dr. Podesta disclosed consulting with Kaleo, Pear Therapeutics, and JayMac, and serving on the speakers bureau of Alkermes, Orexo, and US WorldMeds. She is the author of “Hooked: A Concise Guide to the Underlying Mechanics of Addiction and Treatment for Patients, Families, and Providers” (Dog Ear Publishing, 2016).

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