Below is an e-mail that I changed just enough to hide the person’s identity. Every week, I receive messages that describe similar situations.
My husband has struggled GREATLY with substance abuse since in his 20′s; he is now in his mid-40′s. He is the kindest sweetest man and he is the BEST husband and father. When he is using he becomes someone he is not. We have run the gamut from jail to overdose. Six years ago a friend introduced him to Suboxone and it LITERALLY gave him his life back. He bought it off the friend for years, where it was very expensive. Finally I brought him to a doctor a bit over a year ago. She is pretty adamant about weaning him off of Suboxone.
From experience, I know that 2-3 months after he stops Suboxone he will relapse. I strongly believe it IS a MIRACLE drug! I agree in the sense that if a diabetic needs insulin to save his life, you give it for a lifetime. My husband over the last 6 years has been the man of my dreams, the man I always knew he was. I have extreme anxiety because I know this doctor is just doing her job and trying to follow guidelines however my husband’s LIFE is at stake! It’s not like if he stops this med he could ‘just’ have depression; he could end up in jail, or worse. He has his life back. He is enjoying his family life as he should.
If this is what it takes for him to live a normal life then why not? When we ask his doctor about staying on Suboxone, she says her concern is that we don’t know the long-term effects. She doesn’t want to keep anyone on any med without knowing what it could do. She says it hasn’t been on the market long enough.
My husband had a SEVERE opioid addiction. He was taking 10-15 Oxycontin 80mgs a day and then ended up switching to 400mgs of methadone before he switched to Suboxone. He has found that he is comfortable with 4 of the 8mg pills per day. I believe it is because he was used to taking such high doses of opioids. He has tried really hard to decrease Suboxone for his doctor but I see the anxiety build in him. She says no one in her practice is on that dose. To be honest he was taking more when he was buying them from a friend but brought himself to a stable 4 pills per day when he started with the doctor. He and I both REALLY like her and would like to continue treatment with her. I wish I had a DVD of little clips of our life from before and after Suboxone. I am positive she would be floored. I am positive she would understand my concern. In my eyes my husband is back. He is such a beautiful soul and I hate to see that taken away from him yet again.
Doctor I read up at the top of this blog that you agree with a lifetime use. He currently has no noted side effects. Do you have any suggestions that I may present to his doctor? I dream of the day that she says it is alright for him to continue on this until maybe he chooses to wean if he so chooses to do so. That would alleviate SO MUCH stress on both of us. Please let me know what you think.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I agree with most of the opinions expressed in the email. I know how horrible things are for active opioid addicts—and for the families of active opioid addicts.
More and more physicians pay lip service to ‘addiction as a disease,’ but most do not yet treat addiction as a disease. The comments about diabetes are ‘right on.’ One could substitute a number of diseases to demonstrate the same point. We physicians have few illnesses that we cure; rather we manage illness over a person’s lifetime— and opioid dependence is clearly a life-long illness.
To address a couple points in the message: the active ingredient in Suboxone, buprenorphine, has been in clinical use for over three decades, and has established a clean safety profile. Buprenorphine has not been used at the high doses employed for treating opioid dependence for quite as long, but even that track record is significant, i.e. 8 years in this country, and longer in Europe. Most physicians would not consider an 8-yr-old medication to be a ‘new drug!’
The situation described in the message is, in my opinion, the result of several factors. First and foremost, the reluctance to prescribe buprenorphine is a consequence of stigma. Doctors prescribe new antidepressants, pain relievers, blood pressure treatments, and cholesterol-lowering agents with much less concern over ‘safety.’ I wonder, frankly, if safety is the concern—or whether there is an unconscious sense that patients addicted to opioids, or to other substances, don’t deserve an ‘easy way out’ of their problem; that sitting through a miserable detox is a more fitting ‘treatment’ than a pill that makes things better.
I come to this cynical conclusion only because the alternative—that buprenorphine is ‘dangerous’—doesn’t make sense. The risk of any medication must be compared against the risk of not using that medication. As the message states, we know the risk of ‘not treating’ the woman’s husband! Similar comparisons are used to justify the use of chemotherapeutic agents that have severe toxic effects, including the risk of killing the patient. As I’ve written in prior posts, the fatality rate from untreated opioid dependence is as high as for many cancers. So does it make any sense to withhold buprenorphine out of safety concerns?!
There are other reasons for doctors’ reluctance to prescribe buprenorphine. Many fear they will do something wrong, and run afoul of the DEA during an audit—a process that all buprenorphine-certified prescribers are subject to. Some doctors feel pressure from friends and family members of patients, who often blame the doctor for keeping the patient ‘stuck on Suboxone.’ Some doctors want to maintain high patient turnover in order to keep money coming in, since practices are ‘capped’ at 100 patients per certified physician.
Finally, I think many doctors see ongoing treatment as less satisfying than a ‘cure.’ They consider residential treatment the gold standard, and buprenorphine as a less-intensive alternative. They buy into the idea that the addict can be returned to ‘normal’—whatever that is—if he/she works at recovery hard enough. I understand the thought, as that is the type of treatment experience that I went through. But on the other hand, the relapse rate for opioid dependence, after residential treatment, is very high. I myself relapsed after seven years of recovery, losing my career, and almost my life. During my years as medical director of a large residential treatment center, patients discharged as ‘successfully treated’ often became repeat customers, at least until they lost their job and health insurance. Some of them– too many of them–died.
I won’t get into the specifics of treatment; I’ll leave that to her husband’s doctor to work out. But I do hope that the doctor will give some thought to whether stopping this life-saving treatment is truly in the patient’s best interest.
To the patient’s wife– I encourage you to continue as an advocate, and I hope your doctor will understand your perspective.