Category Archives: Policy

Too expensive? (2016)

Discrimination1

I frequently point to health professional recovery programs when discussing the effectiveness of drug-free treatment when it’s delivered in the appropriate dose, frequency and duration. They have stellar outcomes. (More details here.)

The programs were abstinence-based, requiring physicians to abstain from any use of alcohol or other drugs of abuse as assessed by frequent random tests typically lasting for 5 years. Tests rapidly identified any return to substance use, leading to swift and significant consequences. Remarkably, 78% of participants had no positive test for either alcohol or drugs over the 5-year period of intensive monitoring. … The unique PHP care management included close linkages to the 12-step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and the use of residential and outpatient treatment programs that were selected for their excellence.

I generally get three counter-arguments:

  1. That health professionals have more recovery capital and are more likely to recover than other addicts.
  2. That the threat of license suspension/revocation provides a unique combination of carrot and stick. We’ll never get that kind of engagement with regular people.
  3. That treating everyone in this manner would be too expensive—we’ve made a decision, as a culture, that we’re willing to invest this time and capital into addicted doctors but we can’t do it for everyone.

I want to respond to these arguments in this post.

1. “Health professionals have more recovery capital and are more likely to recover than other addicts.”

There may be ways in which health professionals are unique in terms of recovery capital. This may be true. However, they also face a unique set of barriers when initiating recovery. A study of physician recovery programs (this excludes health professionals other than physicians) found high rates of opioid addiction (35%), high rates of combined alcohol and drug problems (31%) and high rates of psychiatric problems (48%). In addition, 74% were not self-referred.

Further, health professionals confront easy access to drugs and with this ease of access to prescription drugs, they often develop tolerance levels that dwarf those of street addicts.

Two pieces of folk wisdom may also be relevant:

  • “Doctors make the worst patients.”
  • “I’ve never met anyone too dumb for recovery, but I’ve met plenty of people who were too smart.”

So…they may have unique advantages, but they also have unique barriers. If there is a difference, is there reason to believe it’s stark enough to it wouldn’t work for other addicts?

2. “Heath professionals are uniquely motivated because of the threat of license suspension/revocation.”

This is probably the strongest counter-argument.

Health professionals place incredibly high value on their profession. They often put enormous time, effort and money into becoming a health professional, but it’s more than that. Their profession often becomes integral to their identity and is a key source of meaning and purpose. In health professional recovery programs, we’ve constructed a system that uses this incredibly powerful element of the addict’s life to initiate and maintain their recovery. And, it’s not just threats. They offer a path to returning to work in a pretty expeditious time-frame, they provide peer support, they develop contracts with employers that provide both support and monitoring.

What would happen if we constructed systems that identified and used (not through coercion or manipulation) elements of the addict’s life that are integral to their identity and are a key sources of meaning and purpose? Debra Jay has developed one model of recovery support that seeks to do exactly this. (Interestingly, she’s had to develop a model that doesn’t require professionally directed services, because it’s not covered by insurance and many families may not be able to afford it.)

What else could be done? We don’t know. Because, as a system, we haven’t tried.

I recently blogged on the issue of coercion and health professional recovery programs and said this:

. . . it is our experience that attracting people to the front door is pretty easy if you have an attractive back door. In our case, this includes:

  • safe, affordable and stable sober housing;
  • opportunities for stable employment with advancement opportunities;
  • a large, welcoming and energetic recovering community (with lots of opioid addicts in long term recovery);
  • two local collegiate recovery programs that support a path to college degrees; and
  • lots of recovery role models providing support and demonstrating that all of this is do-able.

If we can create systems that provide this kind of back door and integrate long term recovery monitoring and support, I think it could go a very long way toward overcoming the long-term-voluntary-engagement-without-coercion issue.

. . .

I’m not suggesting that we’ll have relapse rates as low as 22% over 5 years. I’m also not suggesting that it’d be easy to keep people engaged for 5 years. But, what’s possible? Huge improvements, I’d imagine. But, we don’t know, because we haven’t tried.

Imagine that we tried and engaged in continuous improvement for 10 years. How far could we go?

3. “Treating everyone in this manner would be too expensive.”

So, then, what is provided and what might it cost to replicate it?

First, what is provided:

The first phase of formal addiction treatment for two thirds of these physicians (69%) was residential care often for 90 days. The remaining 31% began treatment in an intensive day treatment setting. The participants at this stage usually received multiple intensive sessions of group, individual, and family counseling as well as an introduction to an abstinence-oriented lifestyle through required attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Caduceus meetings (a collegial support association for recovering health professionals) and other mutual-aide community groups. Frequent status reports on treatment progress were required by most PHPs.

Use of pharmacotherapy as a component of treatment for SUDs was rare. Very few of the treatment programs or the medical directors of the PHPs used any of the available maintenance or antagonist medications.

After completion of initial formal addiction treatment, all PHPs developed a continuing care contract with the identified physician consisting of support, counseling, and monitoring for usually 5 years. Most PHPs (95%) also required frequent participation in AA, NA, or other self-help groups and verification of attendance at personal counseling and/or Caduceus meetings.

Physicians were tested randomly throughout the course of their PHP care, typically being subject to testing 5 of 7 days a week.

Physicians were typically tested an average of four times per month in the first year of their contracts for a total of about 48 tests in the year. By the fifth year, the average frequency of testing was about 20 tests per year.

How much would this cost to replicate? The following is based on Dawn Farm’s fees and costs.

  • $16,800 – 120 days of residential treatment plus unlimited aftercare groups
  • $5460 – 364 drug screens over 5 years ($15 per screen. 2x per week for first 2 years, 1x per week for years 3-5.)
  • $10,000 – 100 outpatient group sessions ($25) and 100 outpatient individual sessions ($75)
  • $5000 – 5 years of recovery support and monitoring from a Recovery Support Specialist with a caseload of 40 (A former head of Michigan’s monitoring program reports that their Case Managers have approximately 150 cases each.)
  • Total = $37,260

Now, this does not include one important element—a workplace monitor and a career employer making contract compliance a condition of employment. However, we offer transitional housing to clients for up to two years.

At less than $38,000 for the whole package, in the context of American healthcare spending, this does not seem to be an unsustainable burden and, in fact, is likely to be a very wise investment in pure financial terms. It’s in the same ballpark as inserting a stent–just the procedure, excluding continuing care, medications, etc. We implant 2,000,000 stents per year.

Imagine what would be possible if 2,000,000 addicts were given that opportunity. Imagine what we could learn.

 

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Filed under Dawn Farm, Policy, Research, Treatment

Too expensive? (2015)

Discrimination1

I frequently point to health professional recovery programs when discussing the effectiveness of drug-free treatment when it’s delivered in the appropriate dose, frequency and duration. They have stellar outcomes. (More details here.)

The programs were abstinence-based, requiring physicians to abstain from any use of alcohol or other drugs of abuse as assessed by frequent random tests typically lasting for 5 years. Tests rapidly identified any return to substance use, leading to swift and significant consequences. Remarkably, 78% of participants had no positive test for either alcohol or drugs over the 5-year period of intensive monitoring. … The unique PHP care management included close linkages to the 12-step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and the use of residential and outpatient treatment programs that were selected for their excellence.

I generally get three counter-arguments:

  1. That health professionals have more recovery capital and are more likely to recover than other addicts.
  2. That the threat of license suspension/revocation provides a unique combination of carrot and stick. We’ll never get that kind of engagement with regular people.
  3. That treating everyone in this manner would be too expensive—we’ve made a decision, as a culture, that we’re willing to invest this time and capital into addicted doctors but we can’t do it for everyone.

I want to respond to these arguments in this post.

1. “Health professionals have more recovery capital and are more likely to recover than other addicts.”

There may be ways in which health professionals are unique in terms of recovery capital. This may be true. However, they also face a unique set of barriers when initiating recovery. A study of physician recovery programs (this excludes health professionals other than physicians) found high rates of opioid addiction (35%), high rates of combined alcohol and drug problems (31%) and high rates of psychiatric problems (48%). In addition, 74% were not self-referred.

Further, health professionals confront easy access to drugs and with this ease of access to prescription drugs, they often develop tolerance levels that dwarf those of street addicts.

Two pieces of folk wisdom may also be relevant:

  • “Doctors make the worst patients.”
  • “I’ve never met anyone too dumb for recovery, but I’ve met plenty of people who were too smart.”

So…they may have unique advantages, but they also have unique barriers. If there is a difference, is there reason to believe it’s stark enough to it wouldn’t work for other addicts?

2. “Heath professionals are uniquely motivated because of the threat of license suspension/revocation.”

This is probably the strongest counter-argument.

Health professionals place incredibly high value on their profession. They often put enormous time, effort and money into becoming a health professional, but it’s more than that. Their profession often becomes integral to their identity and is a key source of meaning and purpose. In health professional recovery programs, we’ve constructed a system that uses this incredibly powerful element of the addict’s life to initiate and maintain their recovery. And, it’s not just threats. They offer a path to returning to work in a pretty expeditious time-frame, they provide peer support, they develop contracts with employers that provide both support and monitoring.

What would happen if we constructed systems that identified and used (not through coercion or manipulation) elements of the addict’s life that are integral to their identity and are a key sources of meaning and purpose? Debra Jay has developed one model of recovery support that seeks to do exactly this. (Interestingly, she’s had to develop a model that doesn’t require professionally directed services, because it’s not covered by insurance and many families may not be able to afford it.)

What else could be done? We don’t know. Because, as a system, we haven’t tried.

I recently blogged on the issue of coercion and health professional recovery programs and said this:

. . . it is our experience that attracting people to the front door is pretty easy if you have an attractive back door. In our case, this includes:

  • safe, affordable and stable sober housing;
  • opportunities for stable employment with advancement opportunities;
  • a large, welcoming and energetic recovering community (with lots of opioid addicts in long term recovery);
  • two local collegiate recovery programs that support a path to college degrees; and
  • lots of recovery role models providing support and demonstrating that all of this is do-able.

If we can create systems that provide this kind of back door and integrate long term recovery monitoring and support, I think it could go a very long way toward overcoming the long-term-voluntary-engagement-without-coercion issue.

. . .

I’m not suggesting that we’ll have relapse rates as low as 22% over 5 years. I’m also not suggesting that it’d be easy to keep people engaged for 5 years. But, what’s possible? Huge improvements, I’d imagine. But, we don’t know, because we haven’t tried.

Imagine that we tried and engaged in continuous improvement for 10 years. How far could we go?

3. “Treating everyone in this manner would be too expensive.”

So, then, what is provided and what might it cost to replicate it?

First, what is provided:

The first phase of formal addiction treatment for two thirds of these physicians (69%) was residential care often for 90 days. The remaining 31% began treatment in an intensive day treatment setting. The participants at this stage usually received multiple intensive sessions of group, individual, and family counseling as well as an introduction to an abstinence-oriented lifestyle through required attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Caduceus meetings (a collegial support association for recovering health professionals) and other mutual-aide community groups. Frequent status reports on treatment progress were required by most PHPs.

Use of pharmacotherapy as a component of treatment for SUDs was rare. Very few of the treatment programs or the medical directors of the PHPs used any of the available maintenance or antagonist medications.

After completion of initial formal addiction treatment, all PHPs developed a continuing care contract with the identified physician consisting of support, counseling, and monitoring for usually 5 years. Most PHPs (95%) also required frequent participation in AA, NA, or other self-help groups and verification of attendance at personal counseling and/or Caduceus meetings.

Physicians were tested randomly throughout the course of their PHP care, typically being subject to testing 5 of 7 days a week.

Physicians were typically tested an average of four times per month in the first year of their contracts for a total of about 48 tests in the year. By the fifth year, the average frequency of testing was about 20 tests per year.

How much would this cost to replicate? The following is based on Dawn Farm’s fees and costs.

  • $14,400 – 120 days of residential treatment plus unlimited aftercare groups
  • $5460 – 364 drug screens over 5 years ($15 per screen. 2x per week for first 2 years, 1x per week for years 3-5.)
  • $10,000 – 100 outpatient group sessions ($25) and 100 outpatient individual sessions ($75)
  • $5000 – 5 years of recovery support and monitoring from a Recovery Support Specialist with a caseload of 40 (A former head of Michigan’s monitoring program reports that their Case Managers have approximately 150 cases each.)
  • Total = $34,860

Now, this does not include one important element—a workplace monitor and a career employer making contract compliance a condition of employment. However, we offer transitional housing to clients for up to two years.

At less than $35,000 for the whole package, in the context of American healthcare spending, this does not seem to be an unsustainable burden and, in fact, is likely to be a very wise investment in pure financial terms. It’s in the same ballpark as inserting a stent–just the procedure, excluding continuing care, medications, etc. We implant 2,000,000 stents per year.

Imagine what would be possible if 2,000,000 addicts were given that opportunity. Imagine what we could learn.

 

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Filed under Dawn Farm, Policy, Research, Treatment

…let us work together

The last couple of days’ posts, a recent conversation and some recent news (I’ll let you guess which story.) reminded me of this post. It’s from a couple of years ago and has a couple of minor updates.


 

“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time… 
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, 
then let us work together.” – Lila Watson

Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about the buprenorphine maintenance, the NY Times series and the reactions since it was published. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here & here.)

At Dawn Farm, we’ve often said that maintenance approaches are often rooted in the belief that opiate addicts can’t recover. Now, I’m the kind of person who tends to be uncomfortable making statements that claim to know the contents of another person’s mind. This week has made me much more comfortable with that statement. None of the responses have argued that maintenance is a great tool for achieving recovery. Several have referred to opiate addiction as a hopeless condition. All the arguments for it have been harm reduction arguments–that it’s associated with reduced use, overdose death, disease transmission, crime and incarceration. (The data is less compelling than many of them would have you believe.)

I want to make clear that I have no interest in getting between an addict and a maintenance treatment. All I want is a day when addicts are offered the same treatment that their doctors are offered–recovery oriented treatment of an adequate duration and intensity. I have no problem with drug-assisted treatment being offered. Give the client accurate information and let them choose. (However, the only choices these articles are worried about are buprenorphine and methadone. SAMHSA reports that, in 2012, about 23% of opiate addicts had a treatment plan that included medication assisted treatment, while 7% got long term residential. It’s worth noting a couple things. First, SAMHSA’s data set is generally limited to programs that get federal funding. Many of these use methadone, but few use buprenorphine. Buprenorphine had $1.4 billion in US sales and was the number 28 drug in 2012. Second, that quarter of heroin addicts with medication assisted treatment in their treatment plans is only those who actually had medication in their plan–23% doesn’t represent everyone who was offered medication, that number would likely be much higher. Third, their definition of long term residential is very loose and can include “transitional living arrangements such as halfway houses”. So, that 7% is inflated and very misleading. Finally, how many people get the treatment doctors get? I’d feel pretty safe guessing it’s a fraction of a percent. Why is there no hand wringing about access to this kind of care?)

However, when we have professionals, policy makers and researchers who don’t believe in the capacity of patients to recover, the kind of help they are going to offer is going to be unhelpful. They’ll focus on risk factors for overdose like “compromised tolerance”. Of course, decreased tolerance is associated with overdose. Then again, social interaction is associated with transmission of many illnesses. Should we discourage social lives?

One has to wonder if the experts interviewed for these articles know any addicts in full recovery–people who are fully re-engaged in family life, community life, vocations, education, faith communities, etc. If so, do they think of the people they know as belonging to some special category that makes them different from other addicts? (When I teach about addiction and bring up the outcomes for health professionals, many students argue that they are a different kind of addict and better outcomes are to be expected.)

While I don’t want to take choices away from addicts, there’s a big part of me that wants these “experts” to leave us alone. We don’t need your “help.” (A kind of help you would never offer a sick peer.)

malcolmxbirthday16x9

That sentiment brings to mind this Malcolm X story:

Several times in his autobiography, Malcolm X brings up the encounter he had with “one little blonde co-ed” who stepped in, then out, of his life not long after hearing him speak at her New England college. “I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke before more affected than this little white girl,” he wrote. So greatly did this speech affect the young woman that she actually flew to New York and tracked Malcolm down inside a Muslim restaurant he frequented in Harlem. “Her clothes, her carriage, her accent,” he wrote, “all showed Deep South breeding and money.” After introducing herself, she confronted Malcolm and his associates with this question: “Don’t you believe there are any good white people?” He said to her: “People’s deeds I believe in, Miss, not their words.”

She then exclaimed: “What can I do?” Malcolm said: “Nothing.” A moment later she burst into tears, ran out and along Lenox Avenue, and disappeared by taxi into the world.

I can relate to his sentiment that the most helpful thing others can do is leave us alone. (“Other” can be a pretty ugly word, no?) Then, when I’m a little less emotional, I’m left to consider my own cognitive biases and creeping certitude. I have to think about the contributions of people like Dr. Silkworth, Sister Ignatia, George Vaillant, etc.

We also need to be watchful for ideological resistance to innovations that could help others find recovery.

Malcolm X had a similar experience to this too:

In a later chapter, he wrote: “I regret that I told her she could do ‘nothing.’ I wish now that I knew her name, or where I could telephone her, and tell her what I tell white people now when they present themselves as being sincere, and ask me, one way or another, the same thing that she asked.”

Alex Haley, in the autobiography’s epilogue (Malcolm X had since been assassinated), recounted a statement Malcolm made to Gordon Parks that revealed how affected he was by his encounter with the blonde coed: “Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. . . . I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.”

Malcolm X realized, too late, that there was plenty this “little blonde coed” could have done, that his response to her was inconsistent with what he, his associates, and his followers wanted to accomplish.

Bill White wrote about the things that have allowed practitioners to avoid the cultural traps in working with addicts:

Four things have allowed addiction treatment practitioners to shun the cultural contempt with which alcoholics and addicts have long been held:

  1. personal experiences of recovery and/or relationships with people in sustained recovery,
  2. addiction-specific professional education,
  3. the capacity to enter into relationships with alcoholics and addicts from a position of moral equality and emotional authenticity (willingness to experience a “kinship of common suffering” regardless of recovery status), and
  4. clinical supervision by those possessing specialized knowledge about addiction, treatment and recovery processes.

We must make sure that these qualities and conditions are not lost in the rush to integrate addiction treatment and other service systems.

I don’t know how to engage these experts who may know a lot about the illness, but they often appear to be blind to the fact that full recovery already exists in every community across the country. It’s especially tough when the field is so fractured, there’s so much money to be made, and external forces (like the Affordable Care Act) are going to be pushing addicts toward primary care for their treatment.

As far as Dawn Farm goes, I heard something last week that cast us in a new light for me.

We are unapologetically rooted in culture.
If you want to join us, and you’re not part of that culture,
you need to find ways to respect, honor and celebrate that culture.”  – Dan Floyd

We’ve talked a lot about the concept of cultural competence and that professional helpers need to deliberately develop similar competencies when working with addicts and the recovering community. I still believe this is true. But, at Dawn Farm, we go beyond mere competence. We are rooted in the culture of recovery, and we help non-recovering staff (more than half of our staff) find ways to respect, honor and celebrate that culture.

This puts us out of the mainstream among professional helpers and “experts” on addiction, but we wouldn’t change a thing.

The question is how to develop this kind of competence in these researchers, policy makers and experts. It would seem that recovery advocacy would be an important way to do this. However, drug manufacturers have ingratiated themselves with recovery advocacy organizations and the organizations have tried to ingratiate themselves with experts. As a result, they’ve waded into supporting medication assisted recovery, but have done little to challenge the therapeutic nihilism that PHARMA nurtures and is a theme in the public comments of these experts.

In the meantime, this brings me back to the quote I opened this post with.

“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time… 
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, 
then let us work together.” – Lila Watson

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Filed under Advocacy, Controversies, Dawn Farm, Harm Reduction, Policy, Research

2014’s Top Posts: #3

Recovery MAINTENANCE

imagesThere’s a lot of commentary out there on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. Some of it’s good, some is bad and there’s a lot in between. Much of it has focused overdose prevention and some of it has focused on a need for evidence-based treatments.

Anna David puts her finger on something very important. [emphasis mine]

Let’s explain that this isn’t a problem that goes away once you get shipped off to rehab or even get a sponsor—that this is a lifelong affliction for many of us. There seems to be this misconception that people are hope-to-die addicts and then get hit by some sort of magical sunlight of the spirit and are transported into another existence where the problem goes away.

[NOTE – I know almost nothing of Hoffman or the treatment he received from his doctors or anyone else. My comments should be considered commentary on the issues involved rather than the specifics of Hoffman or the help he received.]

What I haven’t heard discussed much is his reported relapse a year or so ago. How could that have been prevented?

From what I understand, this is someone who had been in remission for 23 years. And, it sounds like his relapse began in a physician’s office when he was prescribed an opiate for pain.

  • What’s the evidence-base around treating pain in someone who has been abstinent for 23 years?
  • What are the evidence-based practices around how professional helpers should monitor and support the recovery of a patient who has been sober for decades?
  • What are the behaviors associated with recovery maintenance over decades through pain and difficult life experiences?

20090101-new-yearCould the outcome have been different if some sort of recovery checkup had been performed by his primary care physician or the doctor who treated his pain?

If he had been in remission from some other life-threatening chronic disease, wouldn’t his doctors have watched for a symptoms of a recurrence? Or,  given serious consideration to contraindications for the use of particular medications with a history of that chronic disease?

What if he had been asked questions like:

  • How’s your recovery going?
  • Have you had any relapses? Cravings?
  • How did you initiate your recovery?
  • How have you maintained your recovery?
  • Have there been changes in the habits associated with your recovery maintenance? (Meetings, readings, sponsor, social network, etc.)
  • How’s your mood been?
  • What do your family and friends who support your recovery say about this?

Also, if it’s determined that a high risk treatment (like prescribing opiates to someone with a history of opiate addiction) is needed, what kind of relapse prevention plan was put into place? What kind of monitoring and support?

There are two issues here. One is the lack of research, training and support that physicians get around treating addiction and supporting recovery.

The second issue is the role of the patient.

I listened to a talk by Dr. Kevin McCauley this morning in which he addressed objections to the disease model. One of the objections was that the disease model lets addicts off the hook. His response was that, given the cultural context, there were grounds for this concern. BUT, the contextual problem was with the treatment of diseases rather than classifying addiction as a disease. He pointed out that our medical model positions the patient as a passive recipient of medical intervention. As long as the role of the patient is to be passive, this concern has merit. He suggests we need to expect and facilitate patients playing an active role in their recovery and wellness.

So…this was someone who had been in remission for decades. He clearly had a responsibility to maintain his recovery. At the same time, the medical and/or treatment system has a responsibility to monitor and support his recovery.

I happen to have celebrated 23 years of recovery several months ago. I’m still actively engaged in behaviors to maintain my recovery. (Much like I’m actively engaged in behaviors to keep my cholesterol low.)

In 23 years, has a doctor or nurse EVER asked me how my recovery is going? No. Have they ever evaluated my recovery in ANY way? No.

Do they want to check my cholesterol every so often. Like clockwork.

This is a critical failure of the system and the evidence-base. And, we don’t just fail people with decades of recovery. Even more so, we fail people with 90 days, 6 months, a year, 5 years, etc. Then we blame the approach that helped them stabilize and initiate their recovery when the real problem was that we never helped them maintain their recovery. (Then, too often, our solution is to insist that they get into that passive patient role, just take their meds and let the experts do their work.)

via Another Senseless Overdose.

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Top posts of 2014: #12

Abstinence—The Only Way to Beat Addiction?

StrawmanWhat killed Philip Seymour Hoffman? According to Anne Fletcher, it wasn’t the doctor who prescribed him the pain medication that began his relapse, it wasn’t the prescribers of the combination of meds found in his body, it wasn’t his discontinuing the behaviors that maintained his recovery for 23 years, it wasn’t a drug dealer, and it wasn’t addiction itself.

According to her it was 12 step groups for promulgating an alleged myth:

This is exactly what happened when Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Corey Monteith, and most recently, Phillip Seymour Hoffman were found dead and alone. Scores of people most of us never hear about suffer a similar fate every year.

Why does this keep happening? One of the answers is that many people struggling with drug and alcohol problems have been “scared straight” into believing that abstinence is the only way out of addiction and that, once you are abstinent, a short-lived or even single incident of drinking or drugging again is a relapse. “If you use again,” you’re told, “you’ll pick up right where you left off.” Once “off the wagon,” standard practice with traditional 12-step approaches is to have you start counting abstinent days all over again, and you’re left with a sense that you’ve lost your accrued sober time.

She’s describing a theory often referred to as the “abstinence violation effect”. The argument is that the “one drink away from a drunk” message in 12 step groups is harmful and makes relapses worse than they might have been.

One problem. The theory is not supported by research. (See here and here. It hasn’t even held up with other behaviors.)

Two things are important here.

  • First, many people experience problems with drugs and alcohol without ever developing an addiction. Most of these people will stop and moderate on their own. These people are not addicts and their experience does not have anything to teach us about recovery from addiction.
  • Second, loss of control is the defining characteristic of addiction. The “one drink away from a drunk” message is a colloquial way of describing this feature of addiction.

Further, she characterizes AA as opposing moderation for problem drinkers, when AA literature itself says, “If anyone who is showing inability to control his drinking can do the right- about-face and drink like a gentleman, our hats are off to him.” 12 step groups believe that real alcoholics will be incapable of moderate drinking, but they are clear that they have no problem with people moderating, if they are able. This is a straw man.

We’re left to wonder why a best selling author and NY Times reporter would attack 12 step groups with a straw man argument and a long discredited theory.

via Abstinence—The Only Way to Beat Addiction? Part 1 | Psychology Today.

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The Emperor of All Maladies

Throwback Sunday – I thought this old post on parallels between cancer, oncology, addiction, addiction treatment and recovery would be a good pairing with yesterday’s post on professional attitudes toward difficult to treat illnesses.

==================

I’ve been reading The Emperor of All Maladies and I’ve been very struck by the parallels between the is philosophical and practical challenges faced by cancer and addiction researchers, advocates and practitioners.

One of the pioneers of cancer research, treatment and advocacy faced difficult decisions about whether to disclose his own illness:

Proud, guarded, and secretive—reluctant to conflate his battle against cancer with the battle—Farber also pointedly refused to discuss his personal case publicly.

The rhythms of hope and despair

the clinic seemed perpetually suspended between two poles—both “wonderful and tragic . . . unspeakably depressing and indescribably hopeful.” On entering the cancer ward, Goldstein would write later, “I sense an undercurrent of excitement, a feeling (persistent despite repeated frustrations) of being on the verge of discovery, which makes me almost hopeful.

“The mood among pediatric oncologists changed virtually overnight from one of ‘compassionate fatalism’ to one of ‘aggressive optimism.’”

“ALL in children cannot be considered an incurable disease,” Pinkel wrote in a review article. “Palliation is no longer an acceptable approach to its initial treatment.”

The zeal and necessity of the advocates:

She had found her mission. “I am opposed to heart attacks and cancer,” she would later tell a reporter, “the way one is opposed to sin.” Mary Lasker chose to eradicate diseases as some might eradicate sin—through evangelism. If people did not believe in the importance of a national strategy against diseases, she would convert them, using every means at her disposal.

The tension between the patient’s welfare and the professional and intellectual needs of the doctors and researchers:

“There is an old Arabian proverb,” a group of surgeons wrote at the end of a particularly chilling discussion of stomach cancer in 1933, “that he is no physician who has not slain many patients, and the surgeon who operates for carcinoma of the stomach must remember that often.” To arrive at that sort of logic—the Hippocratic oath turned upside down—demands either a terminal desperation or a terminal optimism. In the 1930s, the pendulum of cancer surgery swung desperately between those two points.

Political feminism, in short, was birthing medical feminism—and the fact that one of the most common and most disfiguring operations performed on women’s bodies had never been formally tested in a trial stood out as even more starkly disturbing to a new generation of women. … It was as if the young woman in Halsted’s famous etching—the patient that he had been so “loathe to disfigure”—had woken up from her gurney and begun to ask why, despite his “loathing,” the cancer surgeon was so keen to disfigure her.

“We shall so poison the atmosphere of the first act,” the biologist James Watson warned about the future of cancer in 1977, “that no one of decency shall want to see the play through to the end.”

The demands of caring for patients with such an all-consuming illness:

As Carla’s doctor, I needed to be needed as well, to be acknowledged, even as a peripheral participant in her battle. But Carla had barely any emotional energy for her own recuperation—and certainly none to spare for the needs of others. For her, the struggle with leukemia had become so deeply personalized, so interiorized, that the rest of us were ghostly onlookers in the periphery: we were the zombies walking outside her head.

“To some extent,” he wrote about his patients, “no doubt, they transfer the burden [of their disease] to me.”

The tension between physicians offering palliative care and patients wanting more:

The daughter looked at me as if I were mad. “I came here to get treatment, not consolations about hospice,” she finally said, glowering with fury.

The fear and existential implications of cancer:

Will you turn me out if I can’t get better? —A cancer patient to her physician, 1960s

“I don’t know why I deserved the illness in the first place, but then I don’t know why I deserved to be cured. Leukemia is like that. It mystifies you. It changes your life.”

The pull of palliative care:

As trial after trial of chemotherapy and surgery failed to chisel down the mortality rate for advanced cancers, a generation of surgeons and chemotherapists, unable to cure patients, began to learn (or relearn) the art of caring for patients. It was a fitful and uncomfortable lesson. Palliative care, the branch of medicine that focuses on symptom relief and comfort, had been perceived as the antimatter of cancer therapy, the negative to its positive, an admission of failure to its rhetoric of success.

The movement to restore sanity and sanctity to the end-of-life care of cancer patients emerged, predictably, not from cure-obsessed America but from Europe.

she encountered terminally ill patients denied dignity, pain relief, and often even basic medical care—their lives confined, sometimes literally, to rooms without windows. These “hopeless” cases, Saunders found, had become the pariahs of oncology, unable to find any place in its rhetoric of battle and victory, and thus pushed, like useless, wounded soldiers, out of sight and mind.

Saunders responded to this by inventing, or rather resurrecting, a counterdiscipline—palliative medicine. (She avoided the phrase palliative care because care, she wrote, “is a soft word” that would never win respectability in the medical world.) … she created a hospice in London to care specifically for the terminally ill and dying, evocatively naming it St. Christopher’s—not after the patron saint of death, but after the patron saint of travelers.

“The resistance to providing palliative care to patients,” a ward nurse recalls, “was so deep that doctors would not even look us in the eye when we recommended that they stop their efforts to save lives and start saving dignity instead . . . doctors were allergic to the smell of death. Death meant failure, defeat—their death, the death of medicine, the death of oncology.” Providing end-of-life care required a colossal act of reimagination and reinvention.

Saunders refused to recognize this enterprise as pitted “against” cancer. “The provision of . . . terminal care,” she wrote, “should not be thought of as a separate and essentially negative part of the attack on cancer. This is not merely the phase of defeat, hard to contemplate and unrewarding to carry out. In many ways its principles are fundamentally the same as those which underlie all other stages of care and treatment, although its rewards are different.”

A hint of recovery-oriented palliative care?: [emphasis mine]

Opiates, used liberally and compassionately on cancer patients, did not cause addiction, deterioration, and suicide; instead, they relieved the punishing cycle of anxiety, pain, and despair.

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Dopey, Boozy, Smoky—and Stupid

Kleiman's recent book on marijuana legalization. There's something in it to make everyone mad.

Kleiman’s recent book on marijuana legalization. There’s something in it to make everyone mad.

This week’s Throwback Sunday post focuses on a 2007 policy article by Mark Kleiman. In 2013, Kleiman was selected as the project leader to write Washington State’s marijuana regulations after the drug was decriminalized through a ballot initiative.

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The National Interest has a lengthy article on drug policy by Mark A.R. Kleiman. I disagree with several of his points but this is exactly the kind of thoughtful contribution that the American drug policy debate needs more of.

I tend to see his perspective as hyper-rational (Possibly to balance the moral panic of drug crusaders and fetishization of drug culture by many legalization advocates.) and somewhat removed from both the suffering of addiction and the radical transformation that full recovery offers. I think he risks reducing policy issues to an accounting exercise but he expresses strong, well-informed opinions without and ideological ax to grind (Although there clear Libertarian themes.) and does so without characterizing and dismissing people who think differently.

After outlining the sad state of American drug policy he says:

These are depressing facts that cry out for a radical reform to solve the drug problem once and for all. But the first step toward achieving less awful results is accepting that there is no one “solution” to the drug problem, for essentially three reasons. First, the potential for drug abuse is built into the human brain. Left to their own devices, and subject to the sway of fashion and the blandishments of advertising, many people will wind up ruining their lives and the lives of those around them by falling under the spell of one drug or another. Second, any laws—prohibitions, regulations or taxes—stringent enough to substantially reduce the number of addicts will be defied and evaded, and those who use drugs in defiance of the laws will generally wind up poorer, sicker and more likely to be criminally active than they would otherwise have been. Third, drug law enforcement must be intrusive if it is to be effective, and enterprises created for the expressed purpose of breaking the law naturally tend toward violence because they cannot rely on courts to settle disputes or police to protect them from robbery or extortion.

Any set of policies will therefore leave us with some level of substance abuse—with attendant costs to the abusers themselves, their families, their neighbors, their co-workers and the public—and some level of damage from illicit markets and law enforcement efforts. Thus the “drug problem” cannot be abolished either by “winning the war on drugs” or by “ending prohibition.” In practice the choice among policies is a choice of which set of problems we want to have.

But the absence of a silver bullet to slay the drug werewolf does not mean we are helpless. Though perfection is beyond reach, improvement is not. Policies that pursued sensible ends with cost-effective means could vastly shrink the extent of drug abuse, the damage of that abuse, and the fiscal and human costs of enforcement efforts. More prudent policies would leave us with much less drug abuse, much less crime, and many fewer people in prison than we have today.

The reforms needed to achieve these ambitious goals are radical rather than incremental. But they are not simple, or all of a piece, or in any one of the directions defined by current arguments around American dinner tables, on American editorial pages or in American legislative chambers. The conventional division of drug programs into enforcement, prevention and treatment conceals more than it reveals. So does the standard political line between punitive drug policy “hawks” and service-oriented drug policy “doves.” Neither side is consistently right; some potential improvements in drug policy are hawkish, some are dovish, and some are neither.

I disagree with the hawk vs. doves dichotomy. The service-oriented doves are really divided into at least two camps. An older, more deeply entrenched group but shrinking group of treatment professionals who might be dovish relative to hawks, but generally support some form of prohibition. Then there is a newer group of doves who aren’t all that service-oriented but are more radically dovish, advocating more radical decriminalization.

He offers five principles to guide policy decisions:

First, the overarching goal of policyshould be tominimize the damage done to drug users and to others from the risks of the drugs themselves (toxicity, intoxicated behavior and addiction) and from control measures and efforts to evade them.That implies a second principle: No harm, no foul. Mere use of an abusable drug does not constitute a problem demanding public intervention. “Drug users” are not the enemy, and a achieving a “drug-free society” is not only impossible but unnecessary to achieve the purposes for which the drug laws were enacted.

Third, one size does not fit all: Drugs, users, markets and dealers all differ, and policies need to be as differentiated as the situations they address.

Fourth, all drug control policies, including enforcement, should be subjected to cost-benefit tests: We should act only when we can do more good than harm, not merely to express our righteousness. Since lawbreakers and their families are human beings, their suffering counts, too: Arrests and prison terms are costs, not benefits, of policy. Policymakers should learn from their mistakes and abandon unsuccessful efforts, which means that organizational learning must be built into organizational design. In drug policy as in most other policy arenas, feedback is the breakfast of champions.

Fifth, in discussing programmatic innovations we should focus on programs that can be scaled up sufficiently to put a substantial dent in major problems. With drug abusers numbered in the millions, programs that affect only thousands are barely worth thinking about unless they show growth potential.

Finally, he offers an agenda for policy change. I doubt I could ever comfortably endorse some of these. Others, I find myself resisting, but in the context of radical change (rather than incremental), they may be more acceptable.

  • Don’t fill prisons with ordinary dealers.
  • Lock up dealers based on nastiness, not on volume.
  • Pressure drug-using offenders to stop.
  • Break up flagrant drug markets using low-arrest crackdowns.
  • Deny alcohol to problem drinkers.
  • Raise the tax on alcohol, especially beer.
  • Eliminate the minimum drinking age.
  • Prevent drug dealing among kids.
  • Say more than “No.”
  • Don’t rely on DARE.
  • Encourage less risky forms of nicotine use.
  • Let pot-smokers grow their own.
  • Encourage problem drug users to quit without formal treatment.
  • Expand opiate maintenance.
  • Work on immunotherapies.
  • Get drug enforcement out of the way of pain relief.
  • Create a regulatory framework for performance-enhancing chemicals.
  • Figure out what hallucinogens are good for, and don’t let the drug laws interfere with religious freedom.
  • Stop sacrificing foreign policy and human rights objectives to drug control.

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