Emergency Departments Can Help Prevent Opioid Overdoses

From the Blog of Dr. Nora Volkow
Executive Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse

Additional Writings by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

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Originally Posted at the NIDA Website on August 26, 2019

One of the biggest risk factors for overdose death from opioids is having had a previous overdose. Common sense and a growing body of research suggest that patients with Opioid Use Disorder who receive acute care in an emergency department will be at reduced risk for later overdose if they are initiated on medications to treat their Opioid Use Disorder. Unfortunately, too few Emergency Departments are making this a standard practice, and lives are being lost as a result.

According to a new report published by the Delaware Drug Overdose Fatality Review Commission, half of the people in the state of Delaware who died of an overdose in the second half of 2018 had suffered a previous nonfatal overdose, and more than half (52%) of the overdose deaths occurred within three months of a visit to the emergency room. Even when visits were not for overdose, signs of Opioid Use Disorder were apparent during the visit in most cases. The report thus recommended that patients who visit emergency rooms with obvious signs of Opioid Use Disorder should be immediately referred to rehabilitation treatment. Optimally, the initiation of medication for Opioid Use Disorder should be started before patients are discharged. This will improve their clinical outcomes.

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Even without a waiver, Emergency Department providers are permitted to administer Subcutex (buprenorphine) or methadone a limited number of times to patients under their care. In fact, several studies have now shown the benefit of initiating Subcutex in the Emergency Department rather than just referring the patient to drug treatment—it is called an “emergency” department for a reason! A recent NIDA-funded study by Yale researchers published in JAMA in 2015 showed that Subcutex treatment initiated by Emergency Department physicians was associated with decreased opioid use and improved treatment engagement in the 30-day period following discharge.

There is significant evidence that medications for Opioid Use Disorder prevent overdoses. For example, a prospective cohort study of 17,568 opioid overdose survivors in Massachusetts published last year in Annals of Internal Medicine found significant reductions in the risk of subsequent overdoses over the next 12 months in those who received treatment with methadone or Subcutex. Yet, only 30 percent of those who had overdosed received medication for Opioid Use Disorder. This statistic is extremely alarming, because the sample of patients was clearly at high risk for overdosing.

Bottles of Opiate Prescriptions

More alarmingly, 34 percent of those who had been treated for overdose received additional opioid pain prescriptions during the subsequent 12 months, despite their overdose history, and 26 percent received benzodiazepines, which as respiratory depressants further increase risk of overdose in those who misuse opioid drugs or who are being treated with high doses of opioid medications for pain management. [From my personal experience, benzodiazepines were hightly addictive and I tended to abuse them along with oxycodone. Family members noted my complete lack of sadness or empathy during my father’s funeral in December 2014. I stared at the floor and did not shed a tear. This is solely based on the fact that I was high on oxycodone and benzodiazepines at that time.]

It is crucial that acute care physicians, and the health care systems in which they practice, become aware of the importance of ensuring that patients be screened for Opioid Use Disorder and, if same is detected, that they receive treatment, ideally by initiating them on Subcutex before they are released.  Additionally, patients who visit an Emergency Department because of an overdose, or who otherwise show signs of Opioid Use Disorder, should be sent home with Narcan (naloxone)  and given instructions on how to use it to reverse an opioid-induced overdose. This was another recommendation of the Delaware report.

Naloxone kit

Four out of five fatal overdoses reviewed by the Delaware state commission occurred in a private residence were Narcan was unavailable in nearly 93% of the cases. Abundant research has shown the life-saving benefits of distributing Narcan not only to people who are addicted to opioids or misusing them but also to pain patients being treated with high doses of opioid medications and their families and friends. After all, patients taking opiates for severe chronic pain are at risk of becoming dependent on the narcotic, and could suffer an accidental opiate overdose. It is simply a matter of brain neurochemistry that has no true moral component, and can impact patients of any socioeconomic class.

Making Emergency Department physicians more responsive to the opioid epidemic often means educating colleagues and changing hospital culture. Many emergency physicians do not feel adequately prepared to treat with Subcutex—there are real or perceived logistical impediments like obtaining prior authorization from insurers. Emergency physicians should be encouraged to complete the training necessary to get a waiver to prescribe Subcutext, which greatly enhances their confidence and ability to respond to patients with Opioid Use Disorder.

The NIDA-MED website includes firsthand stories from physicians implementing emergency department overdose treatment with buphrenorphine and prescribed Suboxone to patients suffering from Opioid Use Disorder. Gail D’Onofrio, the lead researcher of the 2015 JAMA study, translated the study findings into practical videos for Emergency Room clinicians now posted on NIDA-MED. NIDA has also developed a companion, comprehensive set of resources to help emergency physicians initiate buprenorphine. In fact, initiating buprenorphine treatment in the emergency room includes step-by-step guidance on buprenorphine treatment, discharge instructions, instructional videos for clinicians on interacting with Opioid Use Disorder patients, and other useful materials.

[PLEASE NOTE: I have added the following sections to Dr. Volkow’s blog post.

Let’s Take a Look at Opioid Use Disorder

DSM 5

The American Psychiatric Association¹ included a comprehensive explanation of Opioid Use Disorder in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Ed. (DSM-5), beginning at page 541. Essentially, Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) is a problematic pattern of opioid use leading to clinically-significant impairment or distress, as manifested by at least two of the following, occurring within a 12-month period:

  1. Opioids are often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended [by the prescribing physician].
  2. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control opioid use.
  3. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the opioid, use the opioid, or recover from its effects.
  4. Craving or a strong desire or urge to use opioids.
  5. Recurrent opioid use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.
  6. Continued opioid use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of opioids.
  7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of opioid use.
  8. Recurrent opioid use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  9. Continued opioid use despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance.
  10. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: (a) a need for markedly increased amounts of opioids to achieve intoxication or desired effect; (b) a markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of an opioid. NOTE: This criterion is not considered to be met for those taking opioids solely under appropriate medical supervision.
  11. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following: (a) the characteristic opioid withdrawal syndrome (refer to Criteria A and B of the criteria set for opioid withdraw in the DMS-5, p. 547-548; (b) opioids (or a closely-related substance) are taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms. NOTE: This criterion is not considered to be met for those individuals taking opioids solely under appropriate medical supervision.

Healthcare is not yet doing enough to avail itself of an effective referral system in the opioid crisis: using visits to emergency rooms to get patients with Opioid Use Disrder on medication and provide them with Naloxone. Intervening in these simple ways would greatly help reduce the shocking numbers of deaths from opioids in this country.

Are You Struggling?

I was obsessed with alcohol and drugs for nearly four decades of my life, which caused horrific and lasting consequences. I ended up serving three years in a state prison around the time I turned 20 years old. My history of using had started in early summer of 1977 shortly after graduating high school. I enjoyed the escape these mind-altering (numbing?) substances provided. Admittedly, it was quite fun at first. Within months, I became dependent on drugs and alcohol in order to function and to feel any degree of release from the demons of my past and the obsessive thoughts in my brain. I couldn’t laugh, relax, enjoy sex or food, or sleep unless I first got high or drunk. Sadly, I struggled with active addiction from shortly after my 18th birthday in 1977 to June 8, 2019.

I had started smoking cannabis and popping oxycodone pills during early Spring of 2018 in an attempt to self-medicate my depression, anxiety, and severe back pain secondary to a construction-related injury several years ago. Looking at the above description of Opioid Use Disorder established by the DSM-5, when in active opiate addiction I exhibit ten out of eleven of the criteria needed for a definitive diagnosis! I am sixty years old now, and I am finally looking at who I am in Christ. I am clean from opiates and cannabis for nearly 120 days, and I no longer dwell on the decades of constant failure. I should mention that I nearly took my own life several times during  my long history of active addiction. My struggle with opiates is fairly recent, and has taken me to places that I did not wish to go. Thankfully, I am confronting this issue with confidence in the power of the Name of Jesus and my unmitigated committment to change, never to be the same.

I work extensively today with a drug and alcohol counselor who is a believer in Christ. The ability to focus on Christ in therapy sessions provides an opportunity to examine the “spiritual malady” of addiction. I am constantly in contact with several elders at my home church who have become mentors. I am “coachable” today. I have started speaking regularly with Duche Bradley on the phone. He has a nationwide ministry of speaking in prisons and high schools about addiction and who we are in Christ Jesus. You can hear his “white chair” testimony here. He has led me through renouncing pharmacia and all nature of flesh-bound habits and addictions, and has encouraged my growth in Christ in order to move forward with my own ministry. Duche said to me, “Brother, if you do these things, you will be blown away about the many permanent changes in your character and your life.”

Nowadays, after having submited to Jesus Christ as my “higher power”—indeed, as my Savior and my Lord and Teacher—the obsession to use chemicals is gone. Likewise, the physical compulsion or craving has been defeated. I could never accomplish this under my own power. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us that alcohol is cunning, baffling, and powerful! No human power can relieve our alcoholism, but God can and will if we seek Him. The same applies to drug addiction. After all, a drug is a drug whether you drink it, snort it, or shoot it into your veins.

It is only through admitting my weaknesses and deciding to work with those who have risen above the evil and failure in their lives that I can get on with my life: studying theology on the master’s degree level, teaching weekly Bible study lessons at a local homeless shelter, and reaching out to newcomers at 12-Step meetings that are presently on a rapid decent into the living hell of active addiction. By accepting God’s “call” on my life, I can move toward a ministry of evangelism, applied apologetics, and lecturing, writing about, and teaching about Christianity and the release we all can have through Jesus. This is my life (as it was always meant to be), and I am happy to finally get on with living it!

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Given the near impossibility of quitting a mind-altering substance on your own, I highly suggest you reach out to someone who’s been there. Check your local government phone number pages in the phone book or, better, yet, do a Google search for A.A. or N.A. If, however, you are in the middle of a psychological or physical life-threatening crisis secondary to substance abuse, Please Call 911.

With suicides on the rise, the federal government wants to make the National Crisis Hotline easier and quicker to use. A proposed three-digit number — 988 — could replace the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The FCC presented the idea to Congress in a report earlier this month and is expected to release more information and seek public comment about the proposal in the coming months. PLEASE REMEMBER: You are not alone.

______________________________
¹ American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth ed. (DSM-5). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing (2013), pp. 547-548.

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