Opioid addiction can happen to anyone, and that includes doctors and nurses. But unlike the general population, they are often barred from medications like methadone, the gold standard of treatment.
When doctors and nurses become addicted to opioids and they get caught, they have to follow strict treatment guidelines to get their licenses back. Often that means they’re not allowed to use the so-called gold standard of treatment – medications such as methadone and Suboxone. NPR’s Selena Simmons-Duffin has more.
Here’s how this played out for Dr. Peter Grinspoon. He got addicted to Vicodin in med school and still had an opiate addiction five years into practice as a primary care physician. Then, back in February 2005, he got in trouble.
Peter Grinspoon, M.D.: In my addicted mind frame, I was writing prescriptions for a nanny who had since returned back to another country. And it didn’t take the pharmacist long to figure out that I was not a 19-year-old nanny from New Zealand.
NPR: He says medication-assisted treatment with Suboxone or methadone was off the table for him. Those medications are similar to opioids and work by suppressing cravings to the abused drug. Physician health programs, he says, effectively banned the use of these medications in the treatment plans they set up for physicians like him.
Grinspoon: Why on earth would you deny physicians who are under so much stress and who have a higher access – they have free refills – and they have a higher addiction rate, why would you deny them the one life-saving treatment for this deadly disease that’s killing more people in this country every year than died in the entire Vietnam War?
NPR: Grinspoon recovered despite what he called several awful rehabs. Today, he’s a licensed primary care doctor and teaches at Harvard Medical School. He also wrote a book about his experience with addiction called “Free Refills.” Now, this was over a decade ago, but Dr. Sarah Wakeman – also at Harvard – says most physician health programs still don’t promote medication and treatment for addiction.
Sarah Wakeman, M.D.: The sort of general standard of care is to send people to abstinence-based residential treatment programs that don’t offer medication treatment.
NPR: She just co-authored a piece in The New England Journal of Medicine which called this, quote, “bad medicine, bad policy and discriminatory.”
Wakeman: I think the underlying issue is stigma and the sort of misunderstanding of the role of medication and this idea that a non-medication-based approach is somehow better than someone taking the medication to control their illness.