What makes treatment effective?

This will be my post in response to the NY Times’ series on Suboxone.

This post originally ran on 7/19/13 and addressed a lot of our concerns.

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postcard---heroin-lie

I’ve been catching a lot of heat recently for posts about Suboxone and methadone. (For the sake of this post, lets refer to them as opioid replacement therapy, or ORT, for the rest of this post.

One commenter who blogs for an ORT provider challenged my arguments that we should offer everyone the same kind of treatment that we offer doctors and questioned the “it works” argument from ORT advocates. He dismissed the treatment model

Another commenter is an opiate addict who objected to a post about Hazelden’s announcement that they started providing ORT maintenance. She reported suffering greatly from cravings and relapsing after drug-free treatment at Hazelden. She’s been on Suboxone for 50 days and feels like it is a better solution for her.

Another post, that has nothing to do with me, blames abstinence-oriented treatment for the recent overdose death of an actor. (Among the other problems with the article are that she slanders abstinence-based treatment by suggesting that abuse is common. She misleads readers into thinking that ORT is not widely available when federal surveys find that ORT admissions accounted for 26% of all admissions. [Not 26% of opioid addiction admissions. 26% of all addiction treatment admissions.]

So, I thought I’d take a step back and try to address the big picture in one post.

The wrong paradigm?

Red_Drug_Pill---recoveryTo some extent, these arguments remind me of hearing Bill White comment on arguments about cognitive-behavioral therapy vs. motivational interviewing vs. 12 step facilitation. He commented that, “these are all arguments within the acute care paradigm.”

I talk often about the success of health professional recovery programs and their remarkable outcomes. What makes these programs so successful? I’d boil it down to a few factors:

  1. They are recovery-oriented. They treat patients with the expectation that they can fully recover and focus on facilitating and supporting recovery rather than just extinguishing symptoms of addiction.
  2. They have a chronic care model. They continue to provide care and support long after the acute stage of treatment (5 years). They also focus on lifestyle changes the will support recovery and look for ways to embed support for recovery in the patient’s environment.
  3. They provide adequate care. The provide multiple levels of high quality care of the appropriate intensity and duration at different stages of the patient’s recovery.

Many abstinence-oriented treatment providers have provided the first, but not the second and third. (Though one could argue that 12 step facilitation offers a long term recovery maintenance model.) They provide 10 days of inpatient care or 2 weeks of intensive outpatient and offer a passive referral to outpatient care. (Only 2% of all treatment admissions were for long term [more than 30 days] residential.) The end product looks something like a system that treats a heart attack with a few days or weeks of emergency care and then discharges the patient with no long term care plan. (Or, a weak long term care plan.) Then, we’re surprised when the patient has another cardiac event.

Many ORT providers have offered the second element, but not the first or third. The long term nature of ORT could be considered a chronic care model. However, the end product look something like palliative care for a treatable condition. It reduces opiate use (not necessarily other drug use), criminal activity and over dose. But these benefits are only realized as long as the patient is on ORT and drop-out rates are not low. And, ORT research has not been able to demonstrate the improvements in quality of life (employment, relationships, housing, life satisfaction, etc.) that we see in those health professionals who get all three elements. (Also note that opiate addicted health professionals often use VERY large doses and go undetected for long periods of time. Any neurological damage from their use does no appear to interfere with their achieving drug-free recovery in very impressive numbers.)

It’s effective!

photo credit: ntoper

photo credit: ntoper

One of the recurring arguments that I hear is that ORT is effective and there is tons of research that it’s effective. I don’t question that it’s effective at achieving some outcomes–reducing criminal activity, reducing opiate use and reducing overdose. If those are the only outcomes you care about, then you can say it’s effective without any qualifications.

Even with my bias for abstinence-oriented treatment, I can imagine circumstances where ORT might be the least bad option. (For example, if your child had been offered high quality treatment of adequate quality and duration more than once and they continue to relapse and be at high risk for fatal overdose.) A few weeks ago I offered an analogy that attempted to offer an approach to informed consent:

Maybe the choice is something like a person having incapacitating (socially, emotionally, occupationally, spiritually, etc.) and life-threatening but treatable cardiac disease. There are 2 treatments:

  1. A pill that will reduce death and symptoms, but will have marginal impact on QoL (quality of life). Relatively little is known about long term (years) compliance rates for this option, but we do know that discontinuation of the medication leads to “near universal relapse“, so getting off it is extremely difficult. The drug has some cognitive side-effects and may also have some emotional side effects. It is known to reduce risk of death, but not eliminate it.
  2. Diet and exercise can arrest all symptoms, prevent death and provide full recovery, returning the patient to a normal QoL. This is the option we use for medical professionals and they have great outcomes. Long-term compliance is the challenge and failure to comply is likely to result in relapse and may lead to death. However, we have lots of strategies and social support for making and maintaining these changes.

The catch is that you can’t do both because option 1 appears to interfere with the benefits of option 2.

Fixing treatment

Hazelden Monument2_2WEBHazelden’s adoption of ORT has provided fuel to a lot of these arguments.

Hazelden was confronted with poor outcomes for their opiate addicted patients. They saw a problem and decided to act.

One option would have been to declare that a 30 day model for opiate addiction treatment is doomed to fail and build a recovery-oriented, chronic care system that delivers high quality care of the appropriate intensity and duration.

ORT seems to be the easier response, particularly with the market and cultural currents flowing in that direction.

Bill White has argued that ORT can be compatible with a recovery orientation. I’m skeptical, but I’m watching and am willing to learn from any success they have.

However, if you can get what the doctor’s having, why would you want anything else? And, shouldn’t we want every patient to get the same kind of care the doctor would get if she were the patient? If you can’t get that, you’ve got some tough decisions to make.

I’m looking for others to implement the health professional model with others, finding ways to build upon it and make it less expensive, as we have.

UPDATE: In an email exchange with a friend who disagrees, I clarified Hazelden’s options, as I see them. If it were Dawn Farm, I’d imagine we’d look at things like:

  • improving our aftercare referral process–asking ourselves if we can make better active linkages to communities of recovery;
  • evaluating whether the intensity, duration and quality of our aftercare recommendations were appropriate;
  • embedding recovery coaching in cities around the country to provide assertive recovery support;
  • improving post-treatment recovery monitoring and re-intervention.

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