The Risk of an Opioid Overdose is High Following Medical Treatment

Opioid addicted individuals face a high risk of overdosing following treatment with the medication buprenorphine, according to the results of a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The FDA-approved buprenorphine is dispensed to almost one million individuals yearly to combat opioid addiction. However, approximately 50% to 80% of patients discontinue the treatment within several weeks or months, and there remains no consensus on how long patients should remain taking the therapy.

To conduct this study, researchers assessed the Medicaid claims data of almost 9,000 adults (aged 18 to 64 years) across various reporting states who remained in continual treatment for at least six months and up to 18 months. They found that regardless of treatment duration, after six months, almost 1 in 20 patients were treated for an opioid overdose at least once.

Moreover, the researchers observed that the rates of new opioid prescriptions and visits to the emergency room were high across all groups in the six months subsequent to buprenorphine treatment discontinuation, and this finding was especially true among individuals with a mental illness. Overall, the rates were notably higher for those who stopped treatment after six months juxtaposed to 15-18 month cohort group.

“The rate at which individuals relapsed and overdosed after ending treatment was alarmingly high, suggesting that discontinuing buprenorphine is a life-threatening event,” says Arthur Robin Williams, MD, MBE, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in a press release about the study.

“Many clinicians think they should prescribe buprenorphine only for time-limited periods, due to stigma and outdated beliefs that patients using medications for opioid use disorder are not in ‘true recovery,'” continued Dr. Williams. “Our paper is one of the first to look at the effect of long-term durations of buprenorphine treatment on subsequent outcomes.”

Dr. Williams added that: Patients and families need guidance, social support, and better coordination of care to help facilitate long-term maintenance with buprenorphrine for opioid use disorder.”