Buprenorphine, Not Subbies

I’ve been writing longer and longer posts on SuboxForum so maybe I need to write more here. This blog archives twelve years of frustration over the ignorance toward buprenorphine, at least until I ran out of steam a year ago. I grew used doctors refusing to treat people addicted to heroin and other opioids. I became used to the growth of abstinence-based treatment programs, even as relapse rates and deaths continued to rise. It isn’t all bad news; I enjoyed the past couple meetings of AATOD, where people openly spoke about medication-assisted treatments without hushed voices. I feel like I’m the conservative one at those meetings!

I don’t remember where I heard first – maybe in an interview with some reporter about addiction- that I was an ‘influencer’ with buprenorphine. The comment surprised me, because from here I don’t see the influence. My supposed influence is from this blog, although I may have changed a couple of minds in my part of my home state among my patients, who had to sit across from me and hear me talk. For an ‘influencer’ I’m not very happy about how many buprenorphine-related things have gone over the years. I still see the same reckless spending of resources, for example. A couple million people in the US abuse opioids, and only a fraction receive treatment.

Those are big things, and anyone reading my blog knows all the big things. I want to write about the little things. The easiest way to have influence is to write about the things that nobody else writes about. After all, that’s what made me an influencer in the first place, back when I had the only buprenorphine blog out there. Here’s what I want to influence: If you’re trying to leave opioid addiction behind, do not call buprenorphine ‘subs’ or subbies.

On the forum I try to keep things real – not in a cool way, but in a medical or scientific way. I want people to use . I know I sound like some old guy frustrated by all of the new words and acronyms on social media. YES, dammit, I AM frustrated by those things! But communication has become so…. careless in the era of Twitter and texting. Find an old book and notice the words and phrases used by educated people 100 years ago. Or look in the drawer at your mom’s house where she kept letters from your dad, or from her friends. Does anyone communicate in sentences anymore?

I’m not crazy (always pay attention when you catch yourself saying that!), so I realize this isn’t the start of a wave (what color would THAT one be?) But I might show a couple people how loose language is used to take advantage of healthcare consumers. In the next post I’m going to show an example of ‘fad-science’ masquerading as alternative medicine, promoting substances that avoid FDA scrutiny by identifying as nutrients and not drugs. Some large scams benefit from the informal attitudes toward health and medicine; attitudes that might encourage more discussion about health, but also lead people to think that medical decisions are as easy as fixing a faulty indicator on the dashboard with the help of a YouTube video. As in ‘I can treat it myself if I can find the medicines somewhere.’

The point is that common talk about medicines is helpful unless it isn’t.
Many people in my area addicted to opioids treat themselves with buprenorphine, either now and then or in some cases long-term. Is ‘treat’ the right word? From my perspective I’d say yes in some cases, and no in others. Last year I took on 4 patients who were taking buprenorphine medications on their own, paying $30/dose, for more than a year. They said (and I believe them) that they hadn’t used opioid agonists for at least that long. I’ve also taken on patients who used buprenorphine but also used heroin, cocaine, and other illicit substances. There is a big difference between the two groups in regard to level of function, employment, relationship status, emotional stability, dental and general health status, and finances. Another difference between them is that people in the first group talk about taking buprenorphine or Suboxone or Zubsolv. Those in the second group talk about finding subbies.

I also have patients in my practice to whom I prescribe buprenorphine, who sometimes talk about subbies, or subs, or ‘vives’, or addies. I correct them and tell them that I have a hard time trusting patients who talk that way. After all, those are street terms. A pharmacist doesn’t say ‘here’s your subs!’

So here’s the rub. Should I discharge these patients? Should I assume from their language that they are part of the street scene, and maybe selling medication I’m prescribing? Or should I just watch them closer and be more suspicious, doubling the drug tests and pill counts? Should I tell the police?
No, of course not. I took it that far to make a point about slippery slopes, and the struggle to find a foothold while sliding.

But I will continue to correct them, and let them know that their words create a certain impression. Getting that point across would be enough influence for one day!

Ten Gripes of Buprenorphine Doctors

I recently gave a lecture to medical students about opioid dependence and medication assisted treatment using buprenorphine, methadone, or naltrexone. I was happy to see their interest in the topic, in contrast to the utter lack of interest in learning about buprenorphine shown by practicing physicians. In case someone from the latter group comes across this page, I’ll list a few things to do or to avoid when caring for someone on buprenorphine (e.g. Suboxone).

1. Buprenorphine does NOT treat acute pain, so don’t assume that it will. Patients are fully tolerant to the mu-opioid effects of buprenorphine, so they do not walk around in a state of constant analgesia. Acute pain that you would typically treat with opioids should be treated with opioids in buprenorphine patients. Patients on buprenorphine need higher doses of agonist, usually 2-3 times greater than other patients. Reduce risk of overuse/overdose by providing multiple scripts with ‘fill after’ dates. For example if someone needs opioid analgesia for 6 days, use three prescriptions that each cover two days, each with the notation ‘fill on or after’ the date each will be needed.

2. Don’t say ‘since you’re an opioid addict I can’t give you anything’. There are ways to provide analgesia safely. If you do not provide analgesia when indicated, your patient will only crave opioids more, and may seek out illicit opioids for relief. Unfortunately nobody will criticize you for leaving your patient in pain, but they should!

3. Don’t blame the lack of pain control on laws that don’t exist, for example “I’d like to help you but the law won’t let me.” Patients deserve honesty, even when the truth makes us uncomfortable. We get paid ‘the big bucks’ for tolerating the discomfort that sometimes comes from frank discussions with our patients.

4. Don’t assume your patient can or cannot control pain medications. If a patient has been stable on buprenorphine for years, he/she may have a partner or family member who you can trust to control pain medications. Some patients stable on buprenorphine can control agonists used for acute pain, but I wouldn’t stake my life, or theirs, on that ability. A useful compromise is to prescribe enough pain medication to cover 1-2 days of analgesia on each of several prescriptions, each with a ‘fill after’ date, to reduce the amount of agonist controlled by the patient at one time.

5. Don’t tell your patients that ‘opioids don’t work for chronic pain.’ I see stories on such great medical sources as the ‘Huffington Post’ explaining that ‘opioids never help chronic pain’. In reality, your patients know that opioids DO treat chronic pain, so they will consider you a liar or an idiot if you clam they don’t. The challenge is explaining the risk/reward equation to your patients, and explaining why treating chronic pain with opioids often leads to greater problems, as the risk/benefit equation is changed by tolerance.

6. I know this will cause heads to explode, but don’t assume that chronic pain is always less severe than acute pain. What if your patient’s chronic pain is worse than the typical pain after cholecystectomy or ACL repair? Most doctors would gasp at the idea of recovering from major surgery without opioids. What if the pain from failed back syndrome is worse?! I have had a few patients who, I’m certain, experience a great deal of suffering, and have gone so far as to have brain or spinal cord implants to get relief. I’m not arguing that we treat chronic pain in the same way as acute pain. But we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that chronic pain isn’t severe enough to warrant opioids in order to dismiss those complaints more easily.

7. Don’t tell your patient to stop taking buprenorphine unless you’ve talked with the doctor who is prescribing that medication, and realize that the doctor you are calling knows more about buprenorphine and addiction than you do.

8. Don’t ask patients ‘how long are you going to take that stuff’ or criticize patients’ use of buprenorphine medications. Likewise psychiatrists shouldn’t tell patients scheduled for knee arthroscopy that the procedure is controversial, or talk patients out of hernia surgery.

9. Don’t assume that the doctor prescribing buprenorphine knows what YOU are doing. Too often patients will tell me about surgery that they failed to discuss in advance, even calling about pain hours after getting home from a procedure they failed to mention. Some people seem to believe that doctors regularly collaborate on their care, even though the opposite is closer to the truth.

10. Don’t assume that unusual or atypical symptoms come fromo buprenorphine. One truism of medicine is that doctors tend to blame unexplained symptoms on whatever medication they know the least about. Fevers of unknown origin, mental status changes, or double vision are not ‘from the buprenorphine!’

Those are the gripes at the top of my list. Did I miss one of yours? Or for patients, have you suffered from breakdowns in the system?

Addendum: 11. When treating post-surgical pain in buprenorphine patients, choose one opioid and stick with it. What often happens is that doctors will use one opioid, say morphine… and when nurses call a few hours later to say the patient is still screaming, they change to a different opioid, then another after that. As a result, the patient is placed on insufficient doses of several opioids, rather than an adequate dose of one medication.

There are two critical issues in treating such patients effectively. First, providing pain relief comes down to competition at the mu receptor. A certain concentration of agonist in the brain and spinal fluid will out-compete buprenorphine and provide analgesia. You cannot get there by adding other opioids together. If you use oxycodone for an hour and then change to dilaudid, you are starting over. Instead, choose one drug, preferably something that can be given intravenously, and stick with it. Morphine is not a good option btw, because of the low potency and histamine releasing properties of that drug.

Second, remember that analgesia and respiratory depression travel together, both mediated by the mu receptor. Anesthesiologists know this principle well… opioid medication can be titrated to respiratory rate, providing that the medication is given IM or IV. If a patient is breathing 28 times per minute, he/she is in pain. If the patient is breathing 6 times per minute, pain is not a problem, and the patient should be monitored for respiratory depression and possible overdose. When treating pain, doctors should aim for a respiratory rate of 14-18 breaths per minute, making sure that the medication is actually getting into the bloodstream (the risk comes when patients are given SQ injections or oral doses of narcotic that enter the bloodstream later, causing toxic blood levels).

This Suboxone Doesn’t Work!

Today on SuboxForum people were writing about their experiences with different buprenorphine formulations.  Doctors occasionally have patients who prefer brand medications over generics, but buprenorphine patients push brand-loyalty to a different level.  The current thread includes references to povidone and crospovidone, compounds included in most medications to improve bioavailability.  Some forum members suggested that their buprenorphine product wasn’t working because of the presence of crospovidone or povidone.  Others shared their experiences with different formulations of buprenorphine and questioned whether buprenorphine products are interchangeable, and  whether buprenorphine was always just buprenorphine, or whether some people respond better to one product or another.
My comments, including my observations about patient tolerance of specific buprenorphine products, are posted below.
Just to get some things straight about povidone and crospovidone (which is just another synthetic formulation of povidone),  both compounds are NEVER absorbed, by anyone.   They are part of a group of compounds called ‘excipients’, and are included in many medications to help with their absorption.  They act as ‘disintegrants’– meaning they allow the medication to ‘unclump’ and dissolve in liquids, such as saliva or intestinal secretions.
Molecules tend to clump together, sometimes into crystals, sometimes into other shapes.  A pile of powdered molecules molded, packed, and dried into pill form wouldn’t dissolve in the GI tract if not for povidone or other disintegrants.  I remember reading somewhere about cheap vitamins that could be found in the stool, looking much the same as they did when they were swallowed.  Not sure who admitted to doing the research for that article..
Buprenorphine IS buprenorphine.  Period.  The absorption isn’t affected much by excipients, because nobody ever complains that their Suboxone or buprenorphine won’t dissolve.  Povidone or crospovidone are also added to increase the volume, because an 8 mg tab of buprenorphine would be the size of 100 or so grains of salt.  Excipients like povidone and crospovidone also help some drugs dissolve, especially drugs that are fatty and don’t usually dissolve well in water-based solutions.   This last purpose does NOT apply to buprenorphine, since buprenorphine is very water-soluble.  Zubsolv is supposedly absorbed more efficiently in part because it dissolves very quickly, and maybe that is due to excipients.
I realize that when I write ‘bupe is bupe’ it sounds like I don’t believe those who complain about their medication.  But honest, I work with people over this issue every day…  I have an equal mix of people who insist Suboxone doesn’t work for them and people who insist ONLY Suboxone works for them.    Today I was reading TIP 43–  a guide about medication-assisted treatment put out by SAMHSA and the Feds that is over 300 pages long, very well-cited– in a section that cited studies about the psychological triggers for withdrawal symptoms.  TIP 43 and other TIPs can be downloaded for free… just Google them.  TIP 43 is primarily about methadone, but some of the information applies to methadone and buprenorphine.  The pertinent section was around page 100, if I remember correctly.
The TIP information mirrored what I see in my practice.  For years, I’ve noticed that patients will complain about withdrawal symptoms even at times when their buprenorphine levels are at their highest.  Patients also report that their withdrawal symptoms go away ‘right away’ after dosing, when in fact buprenorphine levels won’t increase significantly for 45-60 minutes.  People who have been addicted to opioids may remember how even severe withdrawal mysteriously disappeared as soon as oxycodone tabs were sitting on the table in front of them.   The bottom lline– withdrawal experiences are remembered, and those memories are ‘replayed’ in response to triggers or other memories.
In my experience as a prescriber, I’ve come to believe that patients with an open mind will learn to tolerate any type of buprenorphine (the exception being the 1 patient I’ve met who developed hives from meds with naloxone– hives that appeared consistently on three distinct occasions).  But withdrawal symptoms seem to be triggered, in many people, by the expectation of withdrawal symptoms.  So someone convinced he will never tolerate Zubsolv, Bunavail, or Suboxone Film will probably never tolerate those medications.
As for buprenorphine, it IS just buprenorphine.  Molecules with a certain name and structure are always identical to each other.  They are not ‘crafted’ products like bookcases or tables;  some buprenorphine molecules aren’t made with a quality inferior to other buprenorphine molecules.  And once a molecule is in solution, I don’t see much role for excipients.  Of course a tablet or strip could contain too much or too little active drug, but that is an FDA issue, not an excipient issue.

Obama and the TREAT Act

I just read an article in the Daily Beast that reads like a better version of something I would write about the value of medication-assisted treatment of opioid dependence.  I appreciate Christopher Moraff telling a story that has been untold far too long, and I hope the story raises questions across the country.
But I have something else on my mind that deserves a story of its own.  I am just a small-town psychiatrist in the Midwest, of course, and so I could be missing something.  I watch Veep and House of Cards, but I assume that the political games in those shows are grossly exaggerated.  I’ll offer a bit of background… but if you already understand why people opposed to increasing the buprenorphine cap are idiots, just skip the next few paragraphs.
The Recover Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act, a.k.a. TREAT Act, is a Bill with bipartisan support written in response to the epidemic of opioid dependence in the US.  If enacted into law, the TREAT Act (among other things) would increase number of patients that a physician can treat with buprenorphine from 100 to 500 and allow nurse practitioners and other ‘mid-level prescribers’ to treat opioid dependence with buprenorphine medications. For newcomers, treatment professionals debate the wisdom of raising the cap on the number of patients treated by each practioner.  Some people argue against medication treatment entirely and claim that abstinence is the only legitimate goal when treating addiction, despite the fact that abstinence-based treatments rarely work.  ‘Rarely’ is in the eye of the beholder, I guess– but even the most optimistic promoters of abstinence-based treatments claim they fail only 70% of the time– within ONE YEAR.   Other addiction docs advocate using medications that dramatically cut death rates, in concert with counseling.  They demand the counseling despite no evidence– none– that counseling improves outcomes in medication-assisted treatments.  But arguing against counseling is like arguing against… milk, I guess.  Who can argue against milk?
Then there are the extremists like me who argue that addiction is an illness that should be treated like any other illnesses and managed with medications, sometimes over the course of a person’s life.  Maybe counseling is indicated, and maybe not– but the need for counseling should not stand in the way of obtaining a life-sustaining medication.  After all, do we withhold insulin from diabetics who don’t receive nutritional counseling?  We extremists point out that there is no ‘cap’ on patients who are prescribed opioid agonists– the type of practice that started this epidemic in the first place.  We point out that literally no deaths have been caused by buprenorphine in patients who were prescribed the medication.  In all of medicine, THAT is the medication that needs a ‘cap’?  Doctors can treat unlimited numbers of patients with cancers, pain disorders, or complicated surgical procedures, but can’t handle more than 100 of THESE patients?!
I don’t see the point of the other groups, so I won’t try to explain their thought processes– accept one example.  Some docs are Boarded in Addiction Medicine– a secondary certification that can be obtained after certification in primary care or psychiatry.  Full disclosure– I am not Board Certified in Addiction Medicine.  I am Board Certified in Anesthesiology and in Psychiatry, and I worked with narcotics as a pain physician and anesthesiologist for ten years.  And I have a PhD in neurochemistry.  From my perspective, I have enough things on the wall. But the docs who DID get boarded in addiction medicine are angry that they get nothing special for their efforts.  The law that created buprenorphine treatment was intended to increase addiction treatment by primary care practitioners.  But that’s sour grapes to the addiction docs, who want the sole right to treat more than 100 patients.  Never mind that 30,000 people die from overdose each year, and buprenorphine could save many of them.  The addiction-boarded docs are angry that they aren’t given special privileges.  Isn’t THAT a problem!
What does all of this have to do with President Obama?  A bipartisan group of members of Congress of worked on the Treat Act over the past 8 months.  Professional societies have come to compromises over the Bill.  According to Schoolhouse Rock, Congress creates laws and then if passed, the President signs them into law.  The President often pulls opposing factions together, encouraging them to get a Bill to his/her desk.  For most of President Obama’s term, about 20,000-30,000 young Americans have died each year– far more than the total number of Americans killed by war, terrorism, hurricanes, and other natural disasters combined.    Until a month ago, I’ve heard absolutely nothing from the US President– no calls to action, no pressure on lawmakers, no requests to call our congresspersons.  But as the TREAT Act was introduced in the Senate, President Obama announced that he will raise the cap by Executive Order.  A supporter of the President would say (I know, because I’ve heard them) that the important thing is that it got done– so who cares how it happened?
Readers of this blog know that I pretty-much dislike everybody… so it is no surprise that I’m not happy.  We have the TREAT Act sitting in Congress, needing a simple majority to be sent to the President’s desk and signed into law.  During an epidemic of overdose deaths, the support would not be difficult to find for most Presidents, even with an ‘obstructionist Congress’, as our President likes to call them.  A change in the law would be relatively PERMANENT, unlike an Executive order– which can be changed with a new President, or with a new set of political calculations by the same President.   And an Executive Order to change rules at HHS requires hearings for citizen comments, which take more time– time when more patients will die.  Shouldn’t President Obama have used the operations that other Presidents used for far-more controversial issues, and changed the law?  This temporary, delayed Presidential action will get kudos from articles like the one in the Daily Beast.  And Obama gets TV time and headlines to describe how he addressed the opioid epidemic, on his own– in spite of a ‘obstructionist Congress.’
What irks me the most, though, is that an Executive Order didn’t need to take seven years.  By 2010 the overdose epidemic was well-underway, and had already killed a couple hundred thousand young people.  Did President Obama need to wait until the TREAT Act was almost at his doorstep before taking ANY action to stem the surge in overdose deaths?  From the sidelines it looks like the deaths themselves didn’t provoke a response.  But the threat of bipartisan action during an election year?  I guess that’s another story!

Counseling Schmounseling

I just noticed a couple of my recent posts….  these people have it wrong, and that person has it wrong.  One of these days I really need to print something positive and uplifting.  But not today.
Excuse the self-flattery, but I like to think of myself as a physician scientist.  That concept motivated my PhD work, and cost me friend after friend in the years that followed!  A physician scientist isn’t all that difficult to be from an educational standpoint, especially in the age of the internet.  The one thing that is necessary is the willingness, or need, to question every assumption by the media, the government, physicians, laypersons, and other scientists.   Ideally, the questions are guided by a knowledge of p-values, the process by which scientific grants are awarded, an understanding of the peer-review process, and the realization that anyone elected to office knows less about science than most other humans on the planet.
Last night I came across an opinion piece– I think in the Bangor Daily News, but I could be wrong about that– that argued that we will never stem the heroin epidemic without use of medications.  The comment section after the article was filled with the usual angry banter over methadone and buprenorphine that now follows every article about medication assisted treatment.  As an aside, why are the abstinence-based treatment people so angry about medication?  There are people out there who choose to treat cancer using crystals, but they don’t spend time bashing monoclonal antibodies!
Here is the part of this post where I start losing friends…  but let me first say that I know some counselors.  I like counselors.  In fact, some of my best friends are counselors.  But in the comments after that article I read the same thing over and over–   that meds aren’t the important thing, and that counseling is what really makes all the difference.  A couple weeks ago  the person sitting to my right said the same thing during a discussion about  medication-assisted treatments.  And that same phrase is repeated ad nauseum in lecture after lecture in ASAM lectures and policy statements related to addiction.  The phrase has even been codified into some state laws.  And why not?  It is something we all ‘know’, after all.
If we are going so far as writing laws requiring that people have counseling in order to obtain medication, shouldn’t we do one thing first?  Shouldn’t we determine if the comment is really true?
A couple years ago two papers came out– someone help me with the reference if you have them– that looked at abstinence rates after a year on buprenorphine in patients with or without counseling.  Guess what?  The counseling group did not do better!  In fact, the counseled patients did worse; not sigificantly so, but enough to clearly show that there was no ‘trend’ toward better performance in the counseled group (which would have been pointed out, were it true.)
I could hypothesize many reasons why the counseled groups would do worse.  Maybe they were angered by the forced counseling and therefore bonded less effectively with their physician.  Maybe they obtained a false sense of expertise in dealing with addiction, making them more likely to relapse, whereas the non-counseled group learned to just do as they were told.  Or maybe the counselors send out signals, consciously or unconsciously, that interfered with medication treatment.
The thing is, we have no idea which of these things, if any, are going on!  There have been no systematic studies or other attempts to understand what happens during the combination of counseling and medication treatments.  We just have a bunch of people saying ‘do them both!  do them both!–  a comment that apparently feels so good to some people that they just cannot consider things any other way.
For the record, I see ALL my patients for at least 30 minutes for every appointment.  As a Board Certified Psychiatrist, I guess that means I’m counseling them.  And from what I can tell, it seems to be working pretty well.  But even in my own case, I would never draw firm conclusions unless someone does a double-blind study and collects the data.
I encourage all physicians, scientists or not, to question some of what we ‘know’ about addiction treatment.  Is it really all about the counseling?  Maybe— but then again, smart people used to ‘know’ the world was flat, and the Earth was the center of the Universe.