The Other Opioid Crisis: Hospital Shortages Lead To Patient Pain, Medical Error

I came across this public-accesss story, and wanted to share the perspective:

Even as opioids flood American communities and fuel widespread addiction, hospitals are facing a dangerous shortage of the powerful painkillers needed by patients in acute pain, according to doctors, pharmacists and a coalition of health groups.
The shortage, though more significant in some places than others, has left many hospitals and surgical centers scrambling to find enough injectable morphine, Dilaudid and fentanyl — drugs given to patients undergoing surgery, fighting cancer or suffering traumatic injuries. The shortfall, which has intensified since last summer, was triggered by manufacturing setbacks and a government effort to reduce addiction by restricting drug production.
As a result, hospital pharmacists are working long hours to find alternatives, forcing nurses to administer second-choice drugs or deliver standard drugs differently. That raises the risk of mistakes — and already has led to at least a few instances in which patients received potentially harmful doses, according to the nonprofit Institute for Safe Medication Practices, which works with health care providers to promote patient safety.
In the institute’s survey of hospital pharmacists last year, one provider reported that a patient received five times the appropriate amount of morphine when a smaller-dose vial was out of stock. In another case, a patient was mistakenly given too much sufentanil, which can be up to 10 times more powerful than fentanyl, the ideal medication for that situation.
In response to the shortages, doctors in states as far-flung as California, Illinois and Alabama are improvising the best they can. Some patients are receiving less potent medications like acetaminophen or muscle relaxants as hospitals direct their scant supplies to higher-priority cases. Other patients are languishing in pain because preferred, more powerful medications aren’t available, or because they have to wait for substitute oral drugs to kick in.
The American Society of Anesthesiologists confirmed that some elective surgeries, which can include gall bladder removal and hernia repair, have been postponed.
Even as opioids flood American communities and fuel widespread addiction, hospitals are facing a dangerous shortage of the powerful painkillers needed by patients in acute pain, according to doctors, pharmacists and a coalition of health groups.
The shortage, though more significant in some places than others, has left many hospitals and surgical centers scrambling to find enough injectable morphine, Dilaudid and fentanyl — drugs given to patients undergoing surgery, fighting cancer or suffering traumatic injuries. The shortfall, which has intensified since last summer, was triggered by manufacturing setbacks and a government effort to reduce addiction by restricting drug production.
As a result, hospital pharmacists are working long hours to find alternatives, forcing nurses to administer second-choice drugs or deliver standard drugs differently. That raises the risk of mistakes — and already has led to at least a few instances in which patients received potentially harmful doses, according to the nonprofit Institute for Safe Medication Practices, which works with health care providers to promote patient safety.
In the institute’s survey of hospital pharmacists last year, one provider reported that a patient received five times the appropriate amount of morphine when a smaller-dose vial was out of stock. In another case, a patient was mistakenly given too much sufentanil, which can be up to 10 times more powerful than fentanyl, the ideal medication for that situation.
In response to the shortages, doctors in states as far-flung as California, Illinois and Alabama are improvising the best they can. Some patients are receiving less potent medications like acetaminophen or muscle relaxants as hospitals direct their scant supplies to higher-priority cases. Other patients are languishing in pain because preferred, more powerful medications aren’t available, or because they have to wait for substitute oral drugs to kick in.
The American Society of Anesthesiologists confirmed that some elective surgeries, which can include gall bladder removal and hernia repair, have been postponed.
In a Feb. 27 letter to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, a coalition of professional medical groups — including the American Hospital Association, the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists — said the shortages “increase the risk of medical errors” and are “potentially life-threatening.”
In addition, “having diminished supply of these critical drugs, or no supply at all, can cause suboptimal pain control or sedation for patients,” the group wrote.
The shortages involve prefilled syringes of these drugs, as well as small ampules and vials of liquid medication that can be added to bags of intravenous fluids.
Drug shortages are common, especially of certain injectable drugs, because few companies make them. But experts say opioid shortages carry a higher risk than other medications.
Giving the wrong dose of morphine, for example, “can lead to severe harm or fatalities,” explained Mike Ganio, a medication safety expert at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.
Marchelle Bernell (Courtesy of Marchelle Bernell)
Calculating dosages can be difficult and seemingly small mistakes by pharmacists, doctors or nurses can make a big difference, experts said.
Marchelle Bernell, a nurse at St. Louis University Hospital in Missouri, said it would be easy for medical mistakes to occur during a shortage. For instance, in a fast-paced environment, a nurse could forget to program an electronic pump for the appropriate dose when given a mix of intravenous fluids and medication to which she was unaccustomed.
“The system has been set up safely for the drugs and the care processes that we ordinarily use,” said Dr. Beverly Philip, a Harvard University professor of anesthesiology who practices at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “You change those drugs, and you change those care processes, and the safety that we had built in is just not there anymore.”
Dr. Beverly Philip (Courtesy of the American Society of Anesthesiologists)
Chicago-based Marti Smith, a nurse and spokeswoman for the National Nurses United union, offered an example.
“If your drug comes in a prefilled syringe and at 1 milligram, and you need to give 1 milligram, it’s easy,” she said. “But if you have to pull it out of a 25-milligram vial, you know, it’s not that we’re not smart enough to figure it out, it just adds another layer of possible error.”
During the last major opioid shortage in 2010, two patients died from overdoses when a more powerful opioid was mistakenly prescribed, according to the institute. Other patients had to be revived after receiving inaccurate doses.
The shortage of the three medications, which is being tracked by the FDA, became critical last year as a result of manufacturing problems at Pfizer, which controls at least 60 percent of the market of injectable opioids, said Erin Fox, a drug shortage expert at the University of Utah.
A Pfizer spokesman, Steve Danehy, said its shortage started in June 2017 when the company cut back production while upgrading its plant in McPherson, Kan. The company is not currently distributing prefilled syringes “to ensure patient safety,” it said, because of problems with a third-party supplier it declined to name.
That followed a February 2017 report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that found significant violations at the McPherson plant. The agency cited “visible particulates” floating in the liquid medications and a “significant loss of control in your manufacturing process [that] represents a severe risk of harm to patients.” Pfizer said, however, that the FDA report wasn’t the impetus for the factory upgrades.
Other liquid-opioid manufacturers, including West-Ward Pharmaceuticals and Fresenius Kabi, are deluged with back orders, Fox said. Importing these heavily regulated narcotics from other countries is unprecedented and unlikely, she added, in part because it would require federal approval.
At the same time, in an attempt to reduce the misuse of opioid painkillers, the Drug Enforcement Administration called for a 25 percent reduction of all opioid manufacturing last year, and an additional 20 percent this year.
“DEA must balance the production of what is needed for legitimate use against the production of an excessive amount of these potentially harmful substances,” the agency said in August.
When the coalition of health groups penned its letter to the DEA last month, it asked the agency to loosen the restrictions for liquid opioids to ease the strain on hospitals.
The shortages are not being felt evenly across all hospitals. Dr. Melissa Dillmon, medical oncologist at the Harbin Clinic in Rome, Ga., said that by shopping around for other suppliers and using pill forms of the painkillers, her cancer patients are getting the pain relief they need.
Dr. Shalini Shah, the head of pain medicine at the University of California-Irvine health system, pulled together a team of 20 people in January to figure out how to meet patients’ needs. The group meets for an hour twice a week.
Dr. Shalini Shah (Courtesy of University of California-Irvine)
The group has established workarounds, such as giving tablet forms of the opioids to patients who can swallow, using local anesthetics like nerve blocks and substituting opiates with acetaminophen, ketamine and muscle relaxants.
“We essentially have to ration to patients that are most vulnerable,” Shah said.
Two other California hospital systems, Kaiser Permanente and Dignity Health in Sacramento, confirmed they’re experiencing shortages, and that staff are being judicious with their supplies and using alternative medications when necessary. (Kaiser Health News, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
At Helen Keller Hospital’s emergency department in Sheffield, Ala., earlier this month, a 20-year-old showed up with second-degree burns. Dr. Hamad Husainy said he didn’t have what he needed to keep her out of pain.
Sometime in January, the hospital ran out of Dilaudid, a drug seven times more potent than morphine, and has been low on other injectable opioids, he said.
Because Husainy’s patient was a former opioid user, she had a higher tolerance to the drugs. She needed something strong like Dilaudid to keep her out of pain during a two-hour ride to a burn center, he said.
“It really posed a problem,” said Husainy, who was certain she was in pain even after giving her several doses of the less potent morphine. “We did what we could, the best that we could,” he said.
Bernell, the St. Louis nurse, said some trauma patients have had to wait 30 minutes before getting pain relief because of the shortages.
Dr. Howie Mell (Courtesy of Howie Mell)
“That’s too long,” said Bernell, a former intensive care nurse who now works in radiology.
Dr. Howie Mell, an emergency physician in Chicago, said his large hospital system, which he declined to name, hasn’t had Dilaudid since January. Morphine is being set aside for patients who need surgery, he said, and the facility has about a week’s supply of fentanyl.
Mell, who is also a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, said some emergency departments are considering using nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas,” to manage patient pain, he said.
When Mell first heard about the shortage six months ago, he thought a nationwide scarcity of the widely used drugs would force policymakers to “come up with a solution” before it became dire.
“But they didn’t,” he said.



In a Feb. 27 letter to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, a coalition of professional medical groups — including the American Hospital Association, the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists — said the shortages “increase the risk of medical errors” and are “potentially life-threatening.”
In addition, “having diminished supply of these critical drugs, or no supply at all, can cause suboptimal pain control or sedation for patients,” the group wrote.
The shortages involve prefilled syringes of these drugs, as well as small ampules and vials of liquid medication that can be added to bags of intravenous fluids.
Drug shortages are common, especially of certain injectable drugs, because few companies make them. But experts say opioid shortages carry a higher risk than other medications.
Giving the wrong dose of morphine, for example, “can lead to severe harm or fatalities,” explained Mike Ganio, a medication safety expert at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.
Marchelle Bernell (Courtesy of Marchelle Bernell)
Calculating dosages can be difficult and seemingly small mistakes by pharmacists, doctors or nurses can make a big difference, experts said.
Marchelle Bernell, a nurse at St. Louis University Hospital in Missouri, said it would be easy for medical mistakes to occur during a shortage. For instance, in a fast-paced environment, a nurse could forget to program an electronic pump for the appropriate dose when given a mix of intravenous fluids and medication to which she was unaccustomed.
“The system has been set up safely for the drugs and the care processes that we ordinarily use,” said Dr. Beverly Philip, a Harvard University professor of anesthesiology who practices at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “You change those drugs, and you change those care processes, and the safety that we had built in is just not there anymore.”
Dr. Beverly Philip (Courtesy of the American Society of Anesthesiologists)
Chicago-based Marti Smith, a nurse and spokeswoman for the National Nurses United union, offered an example.
“If your drug comes in a prefilled syringe and at 1 milligram, and you need to give 1 milligram, it’s easy,” she said. “But if you have to pull it out of a 25-milligram vial, you know, it’s not that we’re not smart enough to figure it out, it just adds another layer of possible error.”
During the last major opioid shortage in 2010, two patients died from overdoses when a more powerful opioid was mistakenly prescribed, according to the institute. Other patients had to be revived after receiving inaccurate doses.
The shortage of the three medications, which is being tracked by the FDA, became critical last year as a result of manufacturing problems at Pfizer, which controls at least 60 percent of the market of injectable opioids, said Erin Fox, a drug shortage expert at the University of Utah.
A Pfizer spokesman, Steve Danehy, said its shortage started in June 2017 when the company cut back production while upgrading its plant in McPherson, Kan. The company is not currently distributing prefilled syringes “to ensure patient safety,” it said, because of problems with a third-party supplier it declined to name.
That followed a February 2017 report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that found significant violations at the McPherson plant. The agency cited “visible particulates” floating in the liquid medications and a “significant loss of control in your manufacturing process [that] represents a severe risk of harm to patients.” Pfizer said, however, that the FDA report wasn’t the impetus for the factory upgrades.
Other liquid-opioid manufacturers, including West-Ward Pharmaceuticals and Fresenius Kabi, are deluged with back orders, Fox said. Importing these heavily regulated narcotics from other countries is unprecedented and unlikely, she added, in part because it would require federal approval.
At the same time, in an attempt to reduce the misuse of opioid painkillers, the Drug Enforcement Administration called for a 25 percent reduction of all opioid manufacturing last year, and an additional 20 percent this year.
“DEA must balance the production of what is needed for legitimate use against the production of an excessive amount of these potentially harmful substances,” the agency said in August.
When the coalition of health groups penned its letter to the DEA last month, it asked the agency to loosen the restrictions for liquid opioids to ease the strain on hospitals.
The shortages are not being felt evenly across all hospitals. Dr. Melissa Dillmon, medical oncologist at the Harbin Clinic in Rome, Ga., said that by shopping around for other suppliers and using pill forms of the painkillers, her cancer patients are getting the pain relief they need.
Dr. Shalini Shah, the head of pain medicine at the University of California-Irvine health system, pulled together a team of 20 people in January to figure out how to meet patients’ needs. The group meets for an hour twice a week.
Dr. Shalini Shah (Courtesy of University of California-Irvine)
The group has established workarounds, such as giving tablet forms of the opioids to patients who can swallow, using local anesthetics like nerve blocks and substituting opiates with acetaminophen, ketamine and muscle relaxants.
“We essentially have to ration to patients that are most vulnerable,” Shah said.
Two other California hospital systems, Kaiser Permanente and Dignity Health in Sacramento, confirmed they’re experiencing shortages, and that staff are being judicious with their supplies and using alternative medications when necessary. (Kaiser Health News, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
At Helen Keller Hospital’s emergency department in Sheffield, Ala., earlier this month, a 20-year-old showed up with second-degree burns. Dr. Hamad Husainy said he didn’t have what he needed to keep her out of pain.
Sometime in January, the hospital ran out of Dilaudid, a drug seven times more potent than morphine, and has been low on other injectable opioids, he said.
Because Husainy’s patient was a former opioid user, she had a higher tolerance to the drugs. She needed something strong like Dilaudid to keep her out of pain during a two-hour ride to a burn center, he said.
“It really posed a problem,” said Husainy, who was certain she was in pain even after giving her several doses of the less potent morphine. “We did what we could, the best that we could,” he said.
Bernell, the St. Louis nurse, said some trauma patients have had to wait 30 minutes before getting pain relief because of the shortages.
Dr. Howie Mell (Courtesy of Howie Mell)
“That’s too long,” said Bernell, a former intensive care nurse who now works in radiology.
Dr. Howie Mell, an emergency physician in Chicago, said his large hospital system, which he declined to name, hasn’t had Dilaudid since January. Morphine is being set aside for patients who need surgery, he said, and the facility has about a week’s supply of fentanyl.
Mell, who is also a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, said some emergency departments are considering using nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas,” to manage patient pain, he said.
When Mell first heard about the shortage six months ago, he thought a nationwide scarcity of the widely used drugs would force policymakers to “come up with a solution” before it became dire.
“But they didn’t,” he said.

Should Addiction Treatment Include 'Shame'?

Originally Posted 3/23/2013
I generally write positive articles about the use of buprenorphine for treating opioid dependence, and my articles have been reflective of my attitude toward the medication. The field of psychiatry encompasses more conditions than it does effective treatments for those conditions, and my initial experiences treating people with buprenorphine were strikingly positive.
Is All Shame Bad?
My first buprenorphine patients were extremely desperate after multiple treatment failures, and they responded to buprenorphine the way a person with strep throat responds to penicillin.  Their lives improved so dramatically that I wondered if we needed a new understanding of ‘character defects’; whether the shortcomings should be seen not as semi-permanent flaws, but rather as dynamic, maladaptive personality traits, fueled and sustained by active obsession for opioids— and lessened when that obsession was reduced, using buprenorphine.
I still have a number of those patients in my practice, people who have done very well on buprenorphine and have little interest in discontinuing the medication.  As much as I would like to take on a few new patients, I won’t force these people off buprenorphine in order to make room under the cap.  They have worked hard, done well, and have earned the right to a medication that helps keep their illness in remission.
But I’ve noticed a change over the past couple years in the attitudes of patients coming for treatment.  I’ve been slow to specifically identify the change, but when I do an honest assessment, a clear pattern emerges.  To be blunt, young people don’t do as well on Suboxone or buprenorphine as their older counterparts. Maybe they have a harder time accepting the limits to their own mortality; maybe insight requires a longer time to accumulate life experiences.  Maybe they haven’t suffered enough consequences.   But after starting buprenorphine, instead of tearfully expressing disbelief over the lifting of cravings for opioids, younger patients are more likely to take the effects from buprenorphine in stride and continue to engage in addictive behaviors.
I always consider each new patient’s history of ‘consequences’.  I believe that consequences are what eventually spur recovery, providing the patient lives long enough for that to happen—which is certainly not a given with opioid dependence.  I note that consequences impact people similarly in some ways, and differently in other ways.  For example, most people have trouble imagining just how bad things are likely to become until they actually get to that degree of severity.  People who’ve never used a needle believe they will never do so, and people who haven’t been arrested can’t see themselves in that position.
But once consequences occur, people react to them in widely different ways.  Some people react to felony charges with horror, while others appear indifferent.    A near overdose might cause warning bells to go off in one person, yet cause little reaction in someone else. One person will be ashamed and humiliated the first time in jail, while another seems to simply adapt, as consequences move from bad to worse.
Are ‘consequences’ the missing piece of the puzzle for patients who don’t do well on buprenorphine?  If so, are the differing reactions that people have to consequences clues to helping poor responders? Should counseling efforts target for elimination those attitudes of ambivalence or indifference toward negative consequences?
In general, shame is viewed as a hindrance toward recovery.  The cycle of shame is well-known by everyone who treats addiction; the idea that ‘shame’ serves as a trigger of using, which in turn generates more shame, and so on.  But when I see a 20-y-o patient who is addicted to heroin shrug off another relapse, I wonder if in some people, a little shame would be a good thing.
Some comments from readers of the original post:

  1. Lg

Interesting article and noteworthy to me in the sense of shame being a big motivator. Mostly I think is the personal shame I feel for having let opioids kick my arse. In my case the amount of guilt/shame is unbelievable. I’ve been around the block many times and really don’t think I have another one in me. I hope and pray these younger guys get and stay with the program. The other choice just might be the last one they ever make. BTW C&S 5yrs

  1. devin91

Jeff, I think a little shame is probably a good thing. William Moyers (one of the guys running Hazelden and coincidentally Bill Moyers’ son) addresses the issue of shame head-on in his book “Broken” about his own battle with cocaine addiction (which, unfortunately, there is no medicinal treatment currently available for). His view, as I remember from reading the book, is that shame is an intensely emotional recognition of consequences, and one’s responsibility for those consequences. Obviously, too much of it can be bad – as you note. But a measured amount of shame is probably the appropriate response to a negative consequence or relapse.
On an another note, I think your observation about a positive correlation between age and response to buprenorphine is very interesting. However, it also highlights the fact that the opioid epidemic afflicts younger demographic groups with greater severity (by almost all measures) and in greater numbers than it does older age groups. Opioid addiction is growing faster among younger patients, and (according to SAMHSA data) female patients, and it is also killing them faster. Older patients therefore, *may* be statistical confounders, in the sense that they have already survived a lethal illness for longer. In other words, there may be some additional factors that make older patients “better responders” to buprenorphine, and to recovery in general. They are “better patients” overall, perhaps?
I agree that patients who don’t seem to acknowledge or care too much about “consequences” are extremely frustrating. But I think this phenomenon begs the question of WHY patients suffering from addiction seem to ignore consequences in general. In fact, the disease of addiction often seems to be the disease of IRRATIONALITY – taking actions against one’s own interest. It is my hope that medications like buprenorphine can give these younger patients a break from the cycle of relapse/shame/relapse, and give them time to develop a RATIONAL perspective about consequences. But I agree that a patient who blithely shrugs off a relapse IS FRUSTRATING, and perhaps IS a little bit “blameworthy”. But I hesitate to tread down that path of thinking, because then you come full circle to blaming the patient for their disease.
As the opioid epidemic continues to rage in the US and across the globe, I would rather see “shameless” patients ALIVE (to have a chance at developing an appropriate sense of consequences and shame) than see a trend towards the view that patients who don’t develop a rational perspective are somehow less deserving of treatment. In short, I’m hoping that your clinical frustration with these patients will not dim your passion for saving the lives of opioid-addicted patients, ESPECIALLY THE YOUNGER ONES. Yes, a little shame would be good, but I don’t find it terribly surprising that the younger cohorts have less shame, more “resilience”, more “arrogance”, and are harder to treat as patients. But that doesn’t change the fact that the opioid addiction epidemic is killing FAR MORE OF THEM than it is older patients.
This comment should not be taken in any way as a detraction from your commendable work, both at the clinical level and the policy level (e.g. lifting the caps, etc.). I’m just musing on these issues, and thinking out loud here.

Wow (!) in Taipei, Taiwan

I often talk to my patients on buprenorphine (aka Suboxone) about the need to fill their minds with new ideas, plans, and experiences.  For years, those of us with addictions were focused on one thing– finding a way to avoid being sick for the next few hours.  That one issue became the center of our Universe, pushing out every other interest in our lives.  Treatment with buprenorphine removes that obsession, leaving room behind for interests to re-develop.  The challenge for patients on buprenorphine, particularly young patients, is to seize the initiative, and to fill their minds with healthy interests, relationships, and activities.The World's second-tallet building in Taipei
Many treatment professionals completely miss the point of buprenorphine treatment.  The unique action of buprenorphine at the mu receptor results in a constant level of opioid effect, even as the brain level of buprenorphine varies throughout the day.  This constant stimulation disappears through the phenomenon of tolerance; a process that allows the mind to ignore ANY input or stimulus that never varies.
The mind, then, has no evidence that the person is on a medication– so the person ‘feels’ normal, and IS normal– as normal as anyone can be, in a world with caffeinated beverages and wifi networks.  All of the mental activity that was spent fretting over opioids is removed during buprenorphine treatment– a process that really should be called ‘remission treatment,’ given what is occurring in the mind and brain.
I’m getting far afield here… my point is that the removal of all that ‘fretting’ allows for the interests of the person to return. The relationships pushed out and neglected by cravings can be restored, and hopefully repaired.  Hobbies can be taken up again.  Athletic interests can return.
But people who became attached to opioids at a very young age may have missed the normal opportunity to develop those relationships and interests.  Young people must develop interests in other things, once they are stabilized on buprenorphine. As an older person, I am not ‘hip’ to all of the things that younger people do these days (as evidenced by saying ‘hip’!), so I have to leave much of that to the creative energy of those patients!  But as an example of the things one can get interested in, this morning I had a few minutes of ‘do nothing’ time… and after watching one of the stars of ‘The Artist’, the silent movie that one all the Oscars, I Googled ‘silent movies’ and started reading.  Eventually I somehow ended up at a site for a college Asian Student Association (would LOVE to visit at least one Asian country some day…) where I viewed beautiful photos from Taiwan, including the countryside, the cities, the food…. and eventually the YouTube video below, of the Taiwan 2010 New Year firework display, at the world’s SECOND tallest building (for now) – Taipei 101.  (before clicking the link you just past, do you know the first?)
Watch in HD if possible–  turn  of the volume, listen to the people around you, and you’re almost there!
 

Buprenorphine and the Dynamic Nature of Character Defects

Sorry about the re-run—I wrote this several years ago, and I still agree with the concept of ‘dynamic character defects.’ As I read it now, I recognize how things have changed; buprenorphine (Suboxone) has been incorporated into many of the major treatment centers, and even the smallest programs have at least become familiar with the medication.
There still exist some programs where the staff remain ‘anti-Suboxone’, but those places are becoming the exception, and are essentially marginalizing themselves out of the treatment industry.
You may note that I had an attitude of cooperation when I wrote this post, years ago. I suggested that those who prescribe buprenorphine work WITH those treatment centers that were ‘anti-Suboxone;’ that they recognize each others’ strengths. Since then I’ve known several people who were taken in by the anti-sub treatment community, and who eventually died– all the time believing that they were failures at finding sobriety. The shame is not theirs; the shame belongs to those who tricked them, and kept them from the medication that would have saved their lives.
To those treatment centers that do not offer buprenorphine, and that employ counselors who fret about their own jobs to the point of keeping people away from buprenorphine, SHAME ON YOU. Your treatment centers WILL close. And given the high death rate of opioid dependence, I am glad to have such self-centered charlatans out of the industry. Each closing is one less place for people to waste money–while searching for real treatment.
Where was I? Oh yes—my old post about buprenorphine and character defects. This post gets to the issue of the ‘dry drunk’, and why I don’t see that happening with buprenorphine. The post also has implications for the discussion of whether counseling should be a part of EVERY buprenorphine prescription. As always, thanks for reading what I have to say…
I initially had mixed feelings about Suboxone, my opinion likely influenced by my own experiences as an addict in traditional recovery.  But my opinion has changed over the years, because of what I have seen and heard while treating well over 400 patients with buprenorphine in my clinical practice.  At the same time, I acknowledge that while Suboxone has opened a new frontier of treatment for opioid addiction, arguments over the use of Suboxone often split the recovering and treatment communities along opposing battle lines.  The arguments are often fueled by petty notions of ‘whose recovery is more authentic’, and miss the important point that buprenorphine and Suboxone can have huge beneficial effects on the lives of opioid addicts.
The active ingredient in Suboxone is buprenorphine, a partial agonist at the mu opioid receptor. Suboxone contains naloxone to prevent intravenous use; another form of the medication, Subutex, consists of buprenorphine without naloxone.  In this article I will use the name ‘Suboxone’ because of the common reference to the drug, but in all cases I am referring to the use and actions of buprenorphine in either form.  The unique effects of buprenorphine can be attributed to the drug’s unique molecular properties.  First, the partial agonist effect at the receptor level results in a ‘ceiling effect’ to dosing after about 4 mg, so that increased dosing does not result in increased opioid effect beyond that dose.  Second, the high binding affinity and partial agonist effect cause the elimination of drug cravings, dispelling the destructive obsession with use that destroys the personality of the user.  Third, the high protein binding and long half-life of buprenorphine allows once per day dosing, allowing the addict to break the conditioned pattern of withdrawal (stimulus)-use (response) – relief (reward) which is the backbone of addictive behavior.  Fourth, the partial agonist effect and long half life cause rapid tolerance to the drug, allowing the patient to feel ‘normal’ within a few days of starting treatment.  Finally, the withdrawal from buprenorphine provides a disincentive to stop taking the drug, and so the drug is always there to assure the person that any attempt to get high would be futile, dispelling any lingering thoughts about using an opioid.
At the present time there are significant differences between the treatment approaches of those who use Suboxone versus those who use a non-medicated 12-step-based approach.  People who stay sober with the help of AA, NA, or CA, as well as those who treat by this approach tend to look down on patients taking Suboxone as having an ’inferior’ form of recovery, or no recovery at all.  This leaves Suboxone patients to go to Narcotics Anonymous and hide their use of Suboxone.  On one hand, good boundaries include the right to keeping one’s private medical information so one’s self.  But on the other hand, a general recovery principle is that ’secrets keep us sick’, and hiding the use of Suboxone is a bit at odds with the idea of ’rigorous honesty’. People new to recovery also struggle with low self esteem before they learn to overcome the shame society places on ‘drug addicts’;  they are not in a good position to deal with even more shame coming from other addicts themselves!
An ideal program will combine the benefits of 12-step programs with the benefits of the use of Suboxone.  The time for such an approach is at hand, as it is likely that more and more medications will be brought forward for treatment of addiction now that Suboxone has proved profitable.  If we already had excellent treatments for opioid addiction there would be less need for the two treatment approaches to learn to live with each other.  But the sad fact is that opioid addiction remains stubbornly difficult to treat by traditional methods.  Success rates for long-term sobriety are lower for opioids than for other substances.  This may be because the ‘high’ from opioid use is different from the effects of other substances—users of cocaine, methamphetamine, and alcohol take the substances to feel up, loose, or energetic—ready to go out and take on the town.  The ‘high’ of opioid use feels content and ‘normal’— users feel at home, as if they are getting back a part of themselves that was always missing. The experience of using rapidly becomes a part of who the person IS, rather than something the patient DOES.  The term ‘denial’ fits nobody better than the active opioid user, particularly when seen as the mnemonic:  Don’t Even Notice I Am Lying.
The challenges for practitioners lie at the juncture between traditional recovery and the use of medication, in finding ways to bring the recovering community together to use all available tools in the struggle against active opioid addiction.
Suboxone has given us a new paradigm for treatment which I refer to as the ‘remission model’.  This model takes into account that addiction is a dynamic process— far more dynamic than previously assumed.  To explain, the traditional view from recovery circles is that the addict has a number of character defects that were either present before the addiction started, or that grew out of addictive behavior over time.  Opioid addicts have a number of such defects.  The dishonesty that occurs during active opioid addiction, for example, far surpasses similar defects from other substances, in my opinion.  Other defects are common to all substance users; the addict represses awareness of his/her trapped condition and creates an artificial ‘self’ that comes off as cocky and self-assured, when deep inside the addict is frightened and lonely.  The obsession with using takes more and more energy and time, pushing aside interests in family, self-care, and career.  The addict becomes more and more self-centered, and the opioid addict often becomes very ‘somatic’, convinced that every uncomfortable feeling is an unbearable component of withdrawal.  The opioid addict becomes obsessed with comfort, avoiding activities that cause one to perspire or exert one’s self.  The active addict learns to blame others for his/her own misery, and eventually his irritability results in loss of jobs and relationships.
The traditional view holds that these character defects do not simply go away when the addict stops using.  People in AA know that simply remaining sober will cause a ‘dry drunk’—a nondrinker with all of the alcoholic character defects– when there is no active recovery program in place.  I had such an expectation when I first began treating opioid addicts with Suboxone—that without involvement in a 12-step group the person would remain just as miserable and dishonest as the active user.  I realize now that I was making the assumption that character defects were relatively static—that they develop slowly over time, and so could only be removed through a great deal of time and hard work.  The most surprising part of my experience in treating people with Suboxone has been that the defects in fact are not ‘static’, but rather they are quite dynamic.  I have come to believe that the difference between Suboxone treatment and a patient in a ‘dry drunk’ is that the Suboxone-treated patient has been freed from the obsession to use.  A patient in a ‘dry drunk’ is not drinking, but in the absence of a recovery program they continue to suffer the conscious and unconscious obsession with drinking.   People in AA will often say that it isn’t the alcohol that is the problem; it is the ‘ism’ that causes the damage.  Such is the case with opioids as well—the opioid is not the issue, but rather it is the obsession with opioids that causes the misery and despair.  With this in mind, I now view character defects as features that develop in response to the obsession to use a substance.  When the obsession is removed the character defects will go way, whether slowly, through working the 12 steps, or rapidly, by the remission of addiction with Suboxone.
In traditional step-based treatment the addict is in a constant battle with the obsession to use. Some addicts will have rapid relief from their obsession when they suddenly experience a ‘shift of thinking’ that allows them to see their powerlessness with their drug of choice.   For other addicts the new thought requires a great deal of addition-induced misery before their mind opens in response to a ‘rock bottom’. But whether fast or slow, the shift of thinking is effective because the new thought approaches addiction where it lives—in the brain’s limbic system.  The ineffectiveness of higher-order thinking has been proven by addicts many times over, as they make promises over pictures of their loved ones or try to summon the will power to stay clean.  While these approaches almost always fail, the addict will find success in surrender and recognition of the futility of the struggle.  The successful addict will view the substance with fear—a primitive emotion from the old brain.  When the substance is viewed as a poison that will always lead to misery and death, the obsession to use will be lifted.  Unfortunately it is man’s nature to strive for power, and over time the recognition of powerlessness will fade.  For that reason, addicts must continue to attend meetings where newcomers arrive with stories of misery and pain, which reinforce and remind addicts of their powerlessness.
My experiences with Suboxone have challenged my old perceptions, and led me to believe that the character defects of addiction are much more dynamic.  Suboxone removes the obsession to use almost immediately.  The addict does not then enter into a ‘dry drunk’, but instead the absence of the obsession to use allows the return of positive character traits that had been pushed aside.  The elimination of negative character traits does not always require rigorous step work— in many cases the negative traits simply disappear as the obsession to use is relieved.  I base this opinion on my experiences with scores of Suboxone patients, and more importantly with the spouses, parents, and children of Suboxone patients.  I have seen multiple instances of improved communication and new-found humility.  I have heard families talk about ‘having dad back’, and husbands talk about getting back the women they married.  I sometimes miss my old days as an anesthesiologist placing labor epidurals, as the patients were so grateful—and so I am happy to have found Suboxone treatment, for it is one of the rare areas in psychiatry where patients quickly get better and express gratitude for their care.
A natural question is why character defects would simply disappear when the obsession to use is lifted?  Why wouldn’t it require a great deal of work?  The answer, I believe, is because the character defects are not the natural personality state of the addict, but rather are traits that are produced by the obsession, and dynamically maintained by the obsession.
Once the dynamic relationship between use obsession and character defects is understood, the proper relationship between Suboxone and traditional recovery becomes clear.  Should people taking Suboxone attend NA or AA?  Yes, if they want to.  A 12-step program has much to offer an addict, or anyone for that matter.  But I see little use in forced or coerced attendance at meetings.  The recovery message requires a level of acceptance that comes about during desperate times, and people on Suboxone do not feel desperate.  In fact, people on Suboxone often report that ‘they feel normal for the first time in their lives’.  A person in this state of mind is not going to do the difficult personal inventories of AA unless otherwise motivated by his/her own internal desire to change.
The role of ‘desperation’ should be addressed at this time:  In traditional treatment desperation is the most important prerequisite to making progress, as it takes the desperation of being at ‘rock bottom’ to open the mind to see one’s  powerlessness. But when recovery from addiction is viewed through the remission model, the lack of desperation is a good thing, as it allows the reinstatement of the addict’s own positive character.  Such a view is consistent with the ‘hierarchy of needs’ put forward by Abraham Maslow in 1943; there can be little interest in higher order traits when one is fighting for one’s life.
Here are a few common questions (and answers) about Suboxone and Recovery:
-Should Suboxone patients be in a recovery group?
I have reservations about forced attendance, as I question the value of any therapy where the patient is not an eager and voluntary participant.  At the same time, there clearly is much to be gained from the sense of support that a good group can provide.  Groups also show the addict that he/she is not as unique as he thought, and that his unhealthy way of visualizing his place in the world is a trait common to other addicts.  Some addicts will learn the patterns of addictive thinking and become better equipped to handle their own addictive thoughts.
-What is the value of the 4th through 6th steps of a 12-step program, where the addict specifically addresses his/her character defects and asks for their removal by a higher power?  Are these steps critical to the resolution of character defects?
These steps are necessary for addicts in ‘sober recovery’, as the obsession to use will come and go to varying degrees over time depending on the individual and his/her stress level.  But for a person taking Suboxone I see the steps as valuable, but not essential.
The use of Suboxone has caused some problems for traditional treatment of opioid dependence, and so many practitioners in traditional AODA treatment programs see Suboxone as at best a mixed blessing.  Desperation is often required to open the addict’s mind to change, and desperation is harder to achieve when an addict has the option to leave treatment and find a practitioner who will prescribe Suboxone.  Suboxone is sometimes used ‘on the street’ by addicts who want to take time off from addiction without committing to long term sobriety.  Suboxone itself can be abused for short periods of time, until tolerance develops to the drug.  Snorting Suboxone reportedly results in a faster time of onset, without allowing the absorption of the naloxone that prevents intravenous use.  Finally, the remission model of Suboxone use implies long term use of the drug.  Chronic use of any opioid, including Suboxone, has the potential for negative effects on testosterone levels and sexual function, and the use of Suboxone is complicated when surgery is necessary.  Short- or moderate-term use of Suboxone raises a host of additional questions, including how to convert from drug-induced remission, without desperation, to sober recovery, which often requires desperation.
Time will tell whether or not Suboxone will work with traditional recovery, or whether there will continue to be two distinct options that are in some ways at odds with each other.  The good news is that treatment of opioid addiction has proven to be profitable for at least one pharmaceutical company, and such success will surely invite a great deal of research into addiction treatment.  At one time we had two or three treatment options for hypertension, including a drug called reserpine that would never be used for similar indications today.  Some day we will likely look back on Suboxone as the beginning of new age of addiction treatment.  But for now, the treatment community would be best served by recognizing each other’s strengths, rather than pointing out weaknesses.

Clean Enough, Chapter 1.3: Bias of the book

Introduction
Bias of the book
You will notice the several times throughout the book I take issue with people over what they say about buprenorphine treatment of opiate dependence.  On my web sites I have been told by those who favor ‘total sobriety’ that I am biased in favor of Suboxone.  I don’t know how to best respond to those characterizations.  I have reviewed the studies related to buprenorphine and Suboxone and become sufficiently educated to understand and critically evaluate those studies.  I have experienced opiate dependence for 17 years and experienced treatment failures and treatment successes.  I have experienced relapse and watched friends relapse and in some cases die from addiction.  I have worked for years with addicts in solo practice, in the Veterans Administration setting, in prisons for men and for women, and in residential treatments that do not use Suboxone at all.  After all of these experiences, I have strong opinions over which treatment methods are more effective than others.  Does favoring the more effective method make me ‘biased’?
But my problem with the ‘bias’ accusation is more complicated than choosing winners and losers.  The people who speak of ‘bias’ usually present a choice between Suboxone and ‘being free of drugs’.  We know, and they should know, that being free of drugs is not a real choice. People who are addicted to opiates and who want to stop have always required intensive residential treatment for a period of 90 days or more.  Even with that intensity of treatment, one-year sobriety rates hover around 50%– much lower for 5 years of sobriety.  But opiate addicts who have not yet experienced treatment are living in a fantasyland where the second choice is to just go back to the person they were before their addiction.  If only!!  If the person considering ‘bias’ were to live in the real world, the choices faced by opiate addicts would be Suboxone, 90 days of residential treatment, jails, institutions, or death.  Forced to deal with the truth of the matter, many people would appear ‘biased’ in favor of Suboxone.
The reason addicts adopt a distorted set of choices is because of ‘denial’, the process where the mind refuses to see the horrible reality of a situation, perhaps to protect the mental state of the person carrying that particular mind around.  The result is a bit of insanity that compares active addicts to people drowning in the middle of the ocean.   Floating in the water around them are life jackets– the life jackets representing Suboxone.  The life jackets would hold the people afloat, but they smell bad and look funny.  Plus, there are several people treading water yelling ‘if you put on a life jacket, you aren’t really swimming on your own!!’   So while some people put on the smelly life jackets and live, another group insists on swimming for shore, 1000 miles away, confident that they will make it.  Some people are safely floating in a life jacket, but are made to feel weak and guilty by the swimmers… so they remove them and join the swimmers, setting off on the 1000-mile swim for shore.  In the end, one or two of the swimmers caught a good current and somehow made it to shore alive, but the vast majority of them drowning later that day, a couple miles from the empty life jackets that could have saved them.   I am strongly in favor of life, and of life jackets. 
I receive e-mails asserting that people are better off when they are completely free of narcotic substances.  On that point I completely agree—unless the people have a chronic illness that demands treatment.  When I am feeling sarcastic I will say that an addict living free of substances is a great thing… and so is ‘world peace’!  Heck, I would prefer if a person taking ten medications for heart disease was free of all heart medications and was ‘normal”!  But many people would not survive without their medications.  If one of my patients wants to go off Suboxone, I will share my honest opinion of the person’s odds, and then help him do what he wants to do.  I will point out the risk of relapse, and hold a spot open for some time in case active addiction returns.  One nice thing about Suboxone is that is does allow a ‘trial of sobriety.’  In the days before Suboxone, relapse meant months or years of misery.  But now a person can try sober recovery, and if active use returns he can high-tail it back to the safety of Suboxone.
I hope that you find the information in this book valuable to your understanding of addiction, and helpful in your search for answers for you and your loved ones.

Opiate dependence and Sleep– You're not crazy; it never comes back to normal.

I was searching the literature this AM and I came across an article that reviews findings related to sleep and addiction.  On a side note, I always have so much fun with literature searches!  I did my PhD in the 1980’s using the latest technology-  a Mac computer with 128 K of RAM.  MacWrite was a 70 K program that fit on one side of a disk; no ‘DD’ or two sides!  I would click ‘save’ after writing a page, and then I’d take a walk, have some coffee, as it took 5-10 minutes to save al those words!  The funny thing– I thought it was incredible at the time.  A whole book the size of the bible could fit on– maybe 10 disks!  The librarian had some type of literature search that one could pay for;  she would call other libraries and ask over the phone if they had the book I wanted!  I looked things up in the ‘card catalog’, writing down the series of numbers and letters that directed me to the right part of ‘the stacks’, where books were shelved 3-4 floors down in the multiple levels of the basement.  I ran up and down the stairs in the stacks probably 20 or more times every day!  Each morning I would go to my list of journals, looking for any new editions to make sure my research hadn’t been ‘scooped’.  I would then go through ‘science citation index’ and find every new article about my topic– vasopressin and other peptide hormone receptors in the brain– and then hunt down the article.  I would eventually take my stack of journals and books to the copy machine, making copies at a nickel per page using a roll or nickels–  I always carried a roll of nickels back then… as I think about it, maybe that is why no women hit on me back then–   things did pick up when the copy machine started accepting quarters!
Compare that to now– I log on to the Medical College of Wisconsin library, where I was looking for info about ADD, relapse, and stimulants…. specifically whether relapse is more or less common when addiction is treated.  I search for ‘ADS’ and get a hundred-something thousand articles, then I screen for those that mention addiction as well, and end up with about 10,000 articles… then look for the ones that mention relapse and that were published since 2002, and end up with a manageable list of 62 articles.  I go through the titles, and if I find one I want I click on it, and download the PDF of the article onto my computer in about three seconds.
WOW.
I was reading one of the articles, and the next article in the journal discussed sleep, something that I am going to discuss on my radio show in a few weeks.  The article pointed out that addicts to all substances have altered sleep patterns that persist for years of abstinence, and that the worst, by far, are the opiate addicts.  Go ahead and check out the article yourself— it is ‘readable’ for the lay-person.  The most interesting point was in regard to people on methadone maintenance;  they found that sleep is disrupted in those people to a severe degree– almost as severe as in opiate addicts in detox!  I hear about sleep problems from addicts all the time;  when I worked in the prisons, poor sleep was a common complain as well.  Most docs probably refuse to deal with the issue too aggressively, maybe even considering the complaints to be ‘drug seeking’.  But the evidence suggests that NOT treating an addicts sleep complaints will increase the risk of relapse.
There were some questions about the findings in the studies, the most significant being whether the addicts had sleep problems BEFORE their addictions– for example, are the people who eventually become addicts people who also have sleep problems?
I am not picking on methadone here;  I hear about sleep complaints from people on buprenorphine as well.  I tend to treat with the usual things– ambien, trazodone, clonidine, hydroxyzine, seroquel…  even temazepam in some patients.  Most sleep agents unfortunately cause tolerance eventually, so the issue tends to come up repeatedly over time.  I don’t know whether patients on buprenorphine fair any better– but I’ll be sure to search out the answer to that question as well!
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