The hospitalist role in treating opioid use disorder

Screen patients at the time of admission


Let’s begin with a brief case. A 25-year-old patient with a history of injection heroin use is in your care. He is admitted for treatment of endocarditis and will remain in the hospital for intravenous antibiotics for several weeks. Over the first few days of hospitalization, he frequently asks for pain medicine, stating that he is in severe pain, withdrawal, and having opioid cravings. On day 3, he leaves the hospital against medical advice. After 2 weeks, he presents to the ED in septic shock and spends several weeks in the ICU. Or, alternatively, he is found down in the community and pronounced dead from a heroin overdose.

Richard Bottner, division of hospital medicine, Dell Seton Medical Center, Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.

Richard Bottner

These cases occur all too often, and hospitalists across the nation are actively building knowledge and programs to improve care for patients with opioid use disorder (OUD). It is evident that opioid misuse is the public health crisis of our time. In 2017, over 70,000 patients died from an overdose, and over 2 million patients in the United States have a diagnosis of OUD.1,2 Many of these patients interact with the hospital at some point during the course of their illness for management of overdose, withdrawal, and other complications of OUD, including endocarditis, osteomyelitis, and skin and soft tissue infections. Moreover, just 20% of the 580,000 patients hospitalized with OUD in 2015 presented as a direct sequelae of the disease.3 Patients with OUD are often admitted for unrelated reasons, but their addiction goes unaddressed.

Opioid use disorder, like many of the other conditions we see, is a chronic relapsing remitting medical disease and a risk factor for premature mortality. When a patient with diabetes is admitted with cellulitis, we might check an A1C, provide diabetic counseling, and offer evidence-based diabetes treatment, including medications like insulin. We rarely build similar systems of care within the walls of our hospitals to treat OUD like we do for diabetes or other commonly encountered diseases like heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

We should be intentional about separating prevention from treatment. Significant work has gone into reducing the availability of prescription opioids and increasing utilization of prescription drug monitoring programs. As a result, the average morphine milligram equivalent per opioid prescription has decreased since 2010.4 An unintended consequence of restricting legal opioids is potentially pushing patients with opioid addiction towards heroin and fentanyl. Limiting opioid prescriptions alone will only decrease opioid overdose mortality by 5% through 2025.5 Thus, treatment of OUD is critical and something that hospitalists should be trained and engaged in.

Food and Drug Administration–approved OUD treatment includes buprenorphine, methadone, and extended-release naltrexone. Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist that treats withdrawal and cravings. Buprenorphine started in the hospital reduces mortality, increases time spent in outpatient treatment after discharge, and reduces opioid-related 30-day readmissions by over 50%.6-8 The number needed to treat with buprenorphine to prevent return to illicit opioid use is two.9 While physicians require an 8-hour “x-waiver” training (physician assistants and nurse practitioners require a 24-hour training) to prescribe buprenorphine for the outpatient treatment of OUD, such certification is not required to order the medication as part of an acute hospitalization.

Hospitalization represents a reachable moment and unique opportunity to start treatment for OUD. Patients are away from triggering environments and surrounded by supportive staff. Unfortunately, up to 30% of these patients leave the hospital against medical advice because of inadequately treated withdrawal, unaddressed cravings, and fear of mistreatment.10 Buprenorphine therapy may help tackle the physiological piece of hospital-based treatment, but we also must work on shifting the culture of our institutions. Importantly, OUD is a medical diagnosis. These patients must receive the same dignity, autonomy, and meaningful care afforded to patients with other medical diagnoses. Patients with OUD are not “addicts,” “abusers,” or “frequent fliers.”

Hospitalists have a clear and compelling role in treating OUD. The National Academy of Medicine recently held a workshop where they compared similarities of the HIV crisis with today’s opioid epidemic. The Academy advocated for the development of hospital-based protocols that empower physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners to integrate the treatment of OUD into their practice.11 Some in our field may feel that treating underlying addiction is a role for behavioral health practitioners. This is akin to having said that HIV specialists should be the only providers to treat patients with HIV during its peak. There are simply not enough psychiatrists or addiction medicine specialists to treat all of the patients who need us during this time of national urgency.


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