Methadone maintenance is somewhat of a mystery to clinicians not involved in addiction medicine, and opioid addicts don’t fare well in the emergency medical system. Many nurses and physicians have trouble dealing with them objectively and don’t want to be involved. Well-managed methadone maintenance is, however, a different story. Few EPs dole out methadone, but maintenance patients show up in the ED with legitimate complaints. Patients on high-dose methadone can experience painful conditions or injuries requiring additional analgesia. It’s not easy, but if one can put aside preconceived notions about addiction, methadone maintenance presents a fascinating challenge to the EP.
Most have treated methadone maintenance therapy (MMT) clients in the ED, and have dealt with withdrawal, missed appointments, and overdose. I have visited a few methadone clinics, and the whole concept is fascinating, giving great insight into a government-sponsored medical entity.
Treatment Improvement Protocol Series 43: Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction in Opioid Treatment Program
This massive document summarizes the consensus of the U.S. Health and Human Services on MMT, which is administered through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, branches of HHS. This 14-chapter document has everything you want to know about MMT.
Initial Screening: Anyone can walk into an MMT clinic and request treatment. Initial screening exams and interviews determine the applicant’s eligibility and the process includes an assessment of their readiness to accept treatment. Ongoing, if not daily interventions, are required to keep the patient in the system and off the opioid. The addiction severity index collects basic information, and it can be used to track progress. Much of the information is supplied by the addict, and truthfulness on their part is paramount for success.
Comment: I suspect most people don’t walk in off the street thinking about MMT for the first time. All potential clients likely consider it many times or talk about it with fellow addicts. They are often prompted to try MMT by those who have been through the process, some more than one time. One would assume that an opioid addict who shows up at the clinic has hit rock bottom or finally has accepted they have an addiction they cannot control. Many are in overt withdrawal. They are ready to sign up.
First impressions are lasting ones. The HHS recommends a plethora of warm and fuzzy approaches to help the addict adjust and feel supported. A nonconfrontational and nonaccusatory attitude is stressed. Unlike the ED, MMT clinics want to be in the business of dispensing methadone. Clinics are usually prepared to provide immediate information, if not methadone treatment, on the first day.
A variety of preprinted documents are handed out that describe the services, rules, and expectations of the program. Policies are in place to deal with disruptive and violent clients and pregnant women. Clinics also try to identify treatment barriers and offer financial assistance and psychiatric crisis intervention. Many patients also have underlying psychiatric disorders, legal difficulties, child care issues, and transportation and family concerns. Cultural, ethical, and spiritual factors also complicate MMT. Those patients who seem in crisis can be referred for inpatient medical facility or psychiatric care. The correlation between opioid addiction and the risk of suicide is well known, and initial screening and periodic assessment helps determine that ongoing risk.
Admission Issues: A significant delay between the first contact, initial screening, and methadone treatment, especially failure to quickly address withdrawal, adversely affects the number of applicants who enter the program. It’s difficult to deal with an opioid addict in withdrawal; his patience wears thin, and he wants treatment now. Recognizing the realities of crowding and limited resources, MMT clinics can provide an interim maintenance program without formal screening or actual admission to the site. By federal regulation, medication can be administered for up to 120 days with only minimal screening procedures.
Violent or threatening patients can be turned down, but I have been amazed at how understanding and supportive some of the staff are; it’s similar to the mentality emergency physicians use to treat those who are not the nicest people. MMT, like emergency medicine, is a service industry, and the customers often possess the mentality of the McDonald’s client. They want it now, they want it their way, and they don’t want to pay much for it. Frustrated clients who elope are, however, a loss for everyone. Programs are not free, and cash and insurance are accepted, but often the down-and-out addict qualifies for local aid.
Information, Collection, and Dissemination: During the first few visits, a substance abuse history is obtained, and treatment options are discussed. Consent to treat is elicited, and addicts must sign a bevy of documents that provide further information on the multifaceted MMT process. Patients must be 18 or have parental approval. Otherwise, the services are confidential even to family members. Confidential information is not given to any inquiry except the court. The specifics of the individual’s opioid addiction, including recent pattern changes and binges, are gathered. Other drugs such as benzodiazepines and alcohol are often confounding issues, and the patient’s daily pattern of opioid abuse is determined, essentially by his own admission.
The opioid withdrawal history and the energy required to maintain the addiction is sought. Many patients are in withdrawal when they come to the clinic, making historical information open to exaggeration, but many downplay their use (like the alcohol history obtained in the ED). Some withhold a history of other addictions, perhaps thinking they might supplement the methadone if needed. Blood tests for specific drugs are not required nor usually performed to quantify use. A serum drug level is of no value in this scenario. Questioning the history can intimidate the prospective client and set up an adversarial relationship at the beginning. Again, unlike the ED, MMT clinics put a lot of trust in the truthfulness of the addict.
Medical Assessment: The aim of medical assessment is to determine the safety of methadone use. The drug is often dispensed on the first visit because of withdrawal. It is generally required that someone be addicted for one year before admission. There appears to be some flexibility in this criterium, especially for prisoners, pregnant women, or those previously treated. There may be uncertainty about past narcotic use, but generally a broad definition is accepted for opioid addiction, and one need not administer Narcan to test for withdrawal.
Generally, the staff obtains a medical history that documents drug-related diseases such as hepatitis, AIDS, tuberculosis, or STDs. Within 14 days of admission, a basic physical examination is performed, including blood tests for HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis. Federal regulations do not require a full panel of laboratory tests; that appears to be a state issue. Patients usually are tested randomly by a urine screen immunoassay test for additional drug abuse at least eight times each year per SAMHSA. Because methadone does not yield a positive opioid result unless specifically tested, a positive opioid screen usually means exogenous drugs.
Multiple Substance Abuse: It is common knowledge that opioid addicts often abuse other substances, especially alcohol, amphetamines, benzodiazepines, prescription opioids, cocaine, sedatives, and marijuana. CNS depressants are particularly dangerous when combined with opioids. Patients generally are asked to report other substances they used in the past. The accuracy of this form depends, of course, on patient honesty. Alcohol is a favorite of most, and heroin addicts particularly like to add cocaine for additional euphoria. Benzodiazepines are commonly used to boost methadone and enhance the high. Patients also self-medicate because of withdrawal symptoms or because they are anxious, depressed, or lonely.
MMT clients all know using an exogenous substance can kill them and defeat the purpose of MMT. Using exogenous drugs negatively affects attendance rates and cooperation with other programs. Interestingly, patients are not frequently discharged from MMT because they abuse other substances. The main goal is to retain the patient in MMT, allowing for human frailty, lack of self-control, and poor judgment. MMT clients are given multiple chances despite violating explicit rules and regulations.
Drug Testing: Clients are randomly tested for other drugs, usually with an immunoassay urine screen. This is not a perfect system because it only identifies those using other substances frequently and only detects drugs that show up on a urine screen. Of course, it has to be your urine, and there is always someone around who wants to give a clean sample for the right price.
Periodic drug testing provides objective evidence of treatment success and monitors patient progress. Typical urine testing evaluates for commonly abused substances with a qualitative immunoassay technique that has cutoff concentrations. Testing drug levels in the blood is not helpful because tolerance, time of use, and the need to send the test to a reference lab does not allow for meaningful interpretation of data. Most drugs remain in the system and are excreted in the urine for two to four days following use. Measuring methadone serum levels during treatment has minimal value and is not done routinely, but this may be used to identify a rapid or slow metabolizer. Obviously, urine tests are not quantitative; they merely give positive or negative results.
Urine collection may be monitored to avoid contamination or substitution. There are no firm and fast rules for the method of testing, and direct observation is not mandatory. The most common test is an enzyme-multiplied immunoassay technique (EMIT), which uses antibodies to specific drugs or metabolites. Oxycodone is often not identified with this test; nor are clonazepam, Seroquel, hallucinogens, fentanyl, Demerol, dextromethorphan, propoxyphene, and a variety of street drugs. On-site dipstick urine testing is common, but some clinics will confirm the initial clinic screen via a reference laboratory. Many clinics test patients at intake to prove they used opioids recently. The continued use of heroin or other opioids may prompt an increase in the methadone dose because it’s common to supplement during withdrawal.
Retaining Patients in MMT: The longer the patient stays in MMT, the less likely he will revert to using opioids. Staying in MMT for more than a year is associated with constructive lifestyles changes, decreased criminal behavior, and less transmission of infectious diseases. Older patients and those not in the criminal justice system tend to stay in the program longer. Those who have tried it before and failed are better candidates for retention the next time around.
But the key to MMT success, as this HHS publication notes, is: Adequate individualized medication dosages are probably the most important factor in patient retention because they contribute to patient comfort and satisfaction by reducing withdrawal symptoms and craving. The serum half-life of methadone is stated to be 24 to 36 hours, but in reality there is an extremely wide range (13-58 hours). Excessive methadone use occurs when daily visits and individual dose adjustment are not made.
Take-Home Medication: Methadone is usually dispensed daily in a liquid form, and ingestion is witnessed. This keeps patients from diverting tablets. Methadone diversion is a huge problem in this country, but that methadone is usually not obtained from clinics. A single take-home dose is common on Sundays and holidays. After six months to a year, compliant and reliable patients can take home one to four weeks of methadone, but initially, doses are only dispensed daily at the clinic. The requirement to show up every day can be problematic.
Dosing Schedule: A dose of 30 mg to 40 mg of methadone is the upper limit for the initial dose, per regulation. Initial dosing should be followed by increases over subsequent days until withdrawal symptoms are suppressed. A steady state of a dose is not reached for three to five, sometime seven days after a dosage change. The goal is to reach 80 mg to 120 mg methadone per day, a level that has been proven to improve compliance to the program. Using smaller doses or failing to increase the dose when withdrawal is still present is ineffectual and counterproductive. Withdrawal often prompts exogenous drug use or elopement.
The actual schedule is not set in stone, but daily dose increases of 5 mg to 10 mg a day for the first five to seven days to reach 60 mg a day are common. The 60 mg per day dose is maintained under daily observation to reach a steady state. The first week or two of MMT are the most dangerous for the patient and the time during which most fatalities occur. With daily observation and individual dose adjustments, induction is safe and effective as long as the patient is truthful and abstains from other drugs.
The quoted serum half-life of methadone can be misleading, and provides only a rough estimate to forecast dosing requirements and effectiveness. Methadone is eliminated more quickly from the blood and the effects wear off sooner until sufficient levels are obtained to saturate tissues, especially the liver. Smokers have increased clearance, and significant liver damage slows clearance. The optimal dose can only be determined by observing the individual daily, debriefing him on how he feels, and altering dosages in a safe, effective manner.
There is no uniformly suitable dose range or limit for all patients. Some require 400 mg to 700 mg a day while others do well on 80 mg to 120 mg a day. During induction, clinical observation and patient symptoms are the best indicators of whether a dose is too small or large. When this protocol is followed, methadone induction is safe and effective.
Comment: There are eight MMT clinics in Philadelphia, usually for heroin addiction, but more frequently for prescription opioid addiction. Most opioid addicts know the concepts of MMT well, and visit various clinics off and on throughout their addiction. The rules of MMT are straightforward, and each state is allowed some latitude on various issues. Some addicts have learned to work or abuse the system, but MMT is a godsend, if not a true lifeline, for many opioid addicts.
Addiction to hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxycodone is likely more widespread than street heroin. There is little difference between the prescription pill addict and the hardcore street heroin user on everyday issues or potential benefit from MMT. The well-to-do business man, the bored housewife, the professional athlete, or the Hollywood celebrity seem to prefer pills over the needle. Some physicians readily prescribe a slew of addicting medications, prescriptions are stolen or altered, and anyone can buy a few Percocet at the local high school. The Internet provides drugs as well as directions on use and how to beat drug tests and avoid overdose. Of course, heroin can be smoked and snorted as well, but there is less of a stigma involved with popping a pill than buying a bag of heroin on a lonely street corner.
I am quite impressed with the understanding approach to MMT and the dedication of the clinic personnel. Methadone manufacturers stress that their product should be used only under strict HHS guidelines, and they actually reference the Federal Register code in the package insert. The dangers of inappropriate methadone use are well-reported in the literature, but it’s likely an underused drug for chronic pain control.
Society has written off many opioid addicts or would drop them in a heartbeat at any sign of deceit or additional drug use. Not so for MMT clinics; they bend over backwards to give everyone yet another chance. Using additional substances during MMT is very common. Klonopin, Xanax, Soma, and Seroquel are popular in my area to boost methadone’s high, and none show on a urine screen. It’s easy to buy any of these on the street, usually right outside the door of the clinic. It’s best to never underestimate the ingenuity or resourcefulness of an opioid addict so MMT works best in an environment of mutual trust and truthfulness. Lying to the counselor about past or present drug use or beating the drug test is tempting, but in the end, it can be a fatal error.