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.

Addiction Treatment Has it ALL WRONG

Today on SuboxForum members discussed how long they have been treated with buprenorphine medications.  Most agreed that buprenorphine turned their lives around, and most are afraid they will eventually be pushed off the medication.  Most buprenorphine patients described a reprieve from a horrible illness when they discovered buprenorphine.  But most have new fears that they never anticipated– that their physician will die or retire, that politicians will place arbitrary limits on buprenorphine treatment, or that insurers will limit coverage for the medication that saved there lives.
I joined the discussion with the following comment:
I give lectures now and then about ‘Addiction, the Medical Illness.’  Once a person thinks through the topic several times with an open mind, the right approach to treating addiction becomes obvious.    After all, doctors ‘manage’ all illnesses save for a few bacterial diseases, and even those will become at best ‘managed’, as greater resistance develops in most bacteria.  We doctors rarely cure illnesses.  We manage illness.
The public’s attitudes toward treating addiction differ from treatments for other diseases.  Avoiding effective medications isn’t  a goal for other illnesses.  In fact, in most cases doctors refer to skipping medication negatively, as ‘noncompliance.’  There are religious orders that don’t believe in medication including Christian Scientists… and there are religions with specific beliefs, e.g. Scientology, that don’t believe in psychiatry, or Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t accept blood products. I assume that attitudes toward addiction developed over the years when no medical treatments effectively treated addiction.  Doctors and laypersons came to see addiction as untreatable, and the only survivors people who found their rock bottom and in rare cases, saved themselves.  And since nobody could fix addiction, and the only chance at life was to find ‘recovery’, a nebulous concept based on spirituality, adherence to a group identity, and correction of ‘personality defects.’
What an obnoxious attitude– that people with addictions have ‘personality defects’!  Even most of the docs and therapists who ‘get it’ about medication insist that no patient will heal until we ‘fix the underlying cause of his/her addiction’.  What a bunch of crap…  as if all of those people out there WITHOUT addictions have GOOD personalities, and all of those people who got stuck on opioids (mostly because of bad doctors by the way) have BAD personalities.  I call BULL!  Opioids are powerfully-addictive substances, and a percentage of people  exposed to them, regardless of character, become addicted.  My personality was apparently good enough to get a PhD, get married, save a drowning woman, have a family, go to medical school and graduate at the top of my class with multiple honors, become an anesthesiologist and get elected president of my anesthesia group an unprecedented 3 times.  But taking cough medicine that grew into an addiction to fentanyl means I have ‘personality defects’??!!
I’m sure everyone has his/her own story.  But we’ve all heard so often that we have some broken screw at the base of our brains that we’ve started believing it.  And the mistreatment by doctors and pharmacists (and reporters and media and society in general) perpetuates that shame among all of us.
The truth is that our ADDICTIONS caused us to do things that were wrong.  We developed an intense desire to find chemicals because of the activation of addictive centers in our brains.  And THAT caused our ‘character’ problems.
I’ve written before about the ‘dynamic nature of character defects’.  Search my name and that term, and you will find the comments- or just click here.  The character problems so obvious in using addicts are driven by the obsession to find and use opioids.  When you treat that obsession with buprenorphine, those ‘character defects’ disappear.  I’ve seen the process unfold over and over, in patient after patient.  Some doctors perpetuate character problems by treating patients like criminals, and ANY person will develop character problems if treated poorly long enough.  In that way, the defects can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The character defect argument is the whole reason for counseling.  But get this– there have been several studies that looked at abstinence after discontinuation of buprenorphine after one year, with or without counseling.   And the counseling group did WORSE in those studies!  Of course, everyone interprets those studies by saying that ‘the counseling must not have been done right’ or it was not intense enough, rather than accept the data with an open mind, as any good scientist would.
Vivitrol (i.e. depot injections of naltrexone) are the biggest example of treatment based on flawed ideology.  The treatment rests on the idea that if we block receptors and counsel the heck out of people, we can fix their character defects and their addictions so they won’t use when Vivitrol is removed.  The travesty is that nobody will look at the results of this vast experiment, mostly played out in drug courts.  When you think about it, we have a long history of experimenting on people caught in the criminal justice system.  Studies in Australia showed a 12-fold higher death rate in addicts maintained on naltrexone and ‘counseled’ compared to people maintained on methadone.   When the people forced onto Vivitrol by the legal system start to die, will anyone keep track?
Deaths after residential treatment are common, but nobody keeps track of them.  So I’m not holding my breath for outcome data from the failures of drug courts!
Every serious chronic illness warrants chronic medical treatment, save one.   All healthcare professionals will say, some reluctantly, that addiction is a disease.   It is time to start TREATING IT LIKE ONE.