Frequent drug tests in addiction treatment have become a common practice despite proven benefits of such testing. When do tests become the end instead of the means to health and wellness?
In a previous post, I have explained how there was no agreement on the frequency of drug testing in Canada. Not until March 2018, when the British Columbia Centre on Substance use released the National guidelines for opioid use disorder. This article looks at the scientific evidence (or the lack of it) for frequent drug testing in addiction treatment. Read more or watch podcast below:
What is the study about?
We wanted to find out whether frequent urine drug tests correspond with better outcomes of treatment with opioid agonists such as methadone or buprenorphine.
How we did the study ?
We looked at the scientific literature from 1995 up until the end of 2017.
Then, we wanted to see how often the screening should be done while in the opiod agonist treatment. In the study, we included people of any gender, age or ethnicity.
Frequent drug tests lack evidence
We found only one higher quality studies with patients from USA
The study compared weekly and monthly urine drug testing with take-home doses of opioid agonists
Our review identified an urgent gap in research evidence underpinning an area of clinical importance and that is routinely reported by patients as an area of concern
Why is the study important?
Opioid use disorder is a chronic condition impacting the reward, motivation and memory pathways of the brain (ASAM, 2017).
Opioid agonist therapy is a first-line treatment for opioid use disorder.
The frequency and role of urine drug screening in opioid agonist treatment has received little research attention.
Although prior evidence suggests that testing frequency reflects philosophy and practice context, rather than differences in patient characteristics or clinical need, frequent urine testing remains under-researched.
Finally, the editorial of the Canadian Journal of Addiction featured this study as important for bringing additional management aspects for consideration:
McEachern J, Adye-White L, Priest KC, Moss E, Gorfinkel L, Wood E, Cullen W, Klimas J: Lacking evidence for the association between frequent urine drug screening and health outcomes of persons on opioid agonist therapy. International Journal of Drug Policy 2019, 64:30-33.
Updating Cochrane systematic reviews makes them most useful and fresh for readers. We updated our review on concurrent alcohol and drug problems again.
Which new studies we found?
We found seven studies that examined 825 people with drug problems. Six of the studies were funded by the National Institutes for Health or by the Health Research Board; one study did not report its funding source.
One study focused on the way people think and act versus an approach based on Alcoholics Anonymous. It aimed to motivate the person to develop a desire to stop using drugs or alcohol.
Three studies looked at a counselling style for helping people to explore and resolve doubts about changing their behaviour (group, individual and intensive formats). Their controls were education, or less intensive counselling, or assessment-only.
Two Irish studies and one Swiss study looked at practices that aimed to identify an alcohol problem and motivate the person to do something about it versus usual treatment.
This study has been made into a podcast available at Cochrane.org news item at https://www.cochrane.org/news/podcast-which-talking-therapies-work-people-who-use-drugs-and-also-have-alcohol-problems
and a Network news item https://mhn.cochrane.org/news/podcast-which-talking-therapies-work-people-who-use-drugs-and-also-have-alcohol-problems Listen to the podcast below:
Updating Cochrane Review – Key results
The Swiss and Irish studies were directly compared. They took place in general practices (one trial) or methadone clinics (two trials). They included 170 participants with a mean age of 37 years. All participants had positive alcohol screening test upon entry to the trial. At the end, the scores between groups were similar (average difference in scores: -0.6, 1.7 and -2, respectively).
One study found that a brief motivational intervention led to a reduction of alcohol use (by seven or more days in the past month at 6 months).
It remains uncertain whether talking therapies affect drinking and drug-using in people who have problems with both alcohol and other drugs. We lack high quality studies.
Cited cochrane review: Klimas J, Fairgrieve C, Tobin H, Field C-A, O’Gorman CSM, Glynn LG, Keenan E, Saunders J, Bury G, Dunne C, Cullen W. Psychosocial interventions to reduce alcohol consumption in concurrent problem alcohol and illicit drug users. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, Issue 11
Read a summary of the previous version of this review here
Clinicians commonly use urine drug tests to detect or validate self-reported drug use, particularly when beginning and maintaining opioid agonist therapy (for example buprenorphine or methadone). Until now, there has been no clinical consensus on urine drug testing frequency in Canada.
National guidelines for opioid use disorder released: Canadian consensus on urine drug testing frequency
Vancouver, B.C. [March 5, 2018] — “A first of its kind Canadian guideline setting out best practices for treating people with opioid addiction has been released today. The national guideline was based on provincial guidelines developed by the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and implemented in British Columbia last year.” This guideline has been federalized and published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Health care professionals should follow the new guidelines.
Large Variation in Provincial Guidelines for Urine Drug Tests during Opioid Agonist Treatment
Before the new guidelines, each province had their own guidelines for treating opioid addiction. At that time, there was no summary of the published clinical practice guidelines for urine drug tests in Canada. Also, no one measured the consistency with which different provinces suggested administering drug screening. In June 2017, the American Society of Addiction Medicine released the national consensus document for appropriate use of drug testing.
Therefore, we looked at all policies and guidelines for Urine drug screening in Canada, examining the published clinical practice guidelines for each Canadian province and extracting all relevant data in March 2017. Our recent provincial guideline and policy scan found that urine drug screening frequency recommendations vary greatly among Provinces for persons receiving opioid agonist therapy for opioid addiction.
To read the whole story, please visit the journal website www.canadianjournalofaddiction.org or lookup the paper using the following citation:
Moss, E., McEachern, J., Adye-White, L., Priest, K., Gorfinkel, L., Wood, E., Cullen, W., Klimas, J. (2018) Large Variation in Provincial Guidelines for Urine Drug Screening during Opioid Agonist Treatment in Canada. Canadian Journal of Addiction, 9(2):6-9
If you enjoyed reading this post, you may also enjoy reading similar posts about methadone treatment.
Will an increasing pressure on prescribers curb the rising opioid overdose rates?
With only 0.5% of patients prescribed opioids reportedly developing addictions, there must be something else going on that’s making people overdose. A mismatch. Research on this topic is messy and patchy–– simply put, the large correlational research and incidence studies of addiction do not match up. In a recent commentary, we outline how prescription opioids might indirectly influence the rising overdose and addiction rates.
Mismatch: Why Correlation and Incidence Might Not Match Up
First, diversion gets medically prescribed opioids (MPOs) to those who are not prescribed the medication. Diverted MPOs can be sold, gifted (mostly to family members or friends), stolen, or sometimes obtained through “doctor shopping”, where patients get the same prescription from multiple physicians. But we don’t know how much diversion is due to sold, gifted or stolen medicines. How much do the different diversion types contribute to addiction and overdose? And for that matter, how much is diversion occurring, and to what extent is it contributing to national opioid crises?
Second, because overdose is often preceded by addiction, many researchers have focused on the persons who develop an addiction when prescribed opioids. However, if addiction doesn’t come before overdose, some high-risk patients go unstudied, and thus unreported. This has been shown in some states, such as West Virginia, where prescription opioids contributed to 93% of overdose deaths and very few of the deceased had iatrogenic addiction. So, some people might be at risk of sudden overdose but are missed in research studies that focus on medical diagnoses of addiction. This gap in the research is likely due the difficulty of studying overdose risk without the presence of addiction.
Polydrug use and overdose
Third, polydrug use may lead to overdose in people who use prescription opioids but do not specifically have addiction to their MPO. Here benzodiazepines are a big issue. It is important to note that many studies of addiction to MPOs do account for polydrug use by incorporating urine drug screens; however, positive results are often lumped together with other “aberrant” behaviours such as failed pill counts or requesting opioids from multiple doctors. Ultimately, we can’t tell how much polydrug use is really leading to addiction or overdose in this context.
Finally, it is possible that incidence studies to date could be misrepresenting the true risk of addiction to MPOs. Studies of OUD incidence in pain care use definitions of addiction that range from very broad to highly specific, mixing up terms like “dependence”, “abuse”, “misuse”, or “problematic use”. This could make it so our guesses about the risk of addiction to MPOs are muddled, leading to skewed results.
We need to understand better if reduced opioid prescriptions can reduce the opioid crisis. Then we can make the change happen.
To read the whole commentary, please visit the journal website www.canadianjournalofaddiction.org or lookup the paper using the following citation:
Gorfinkel, L., Wood, E., Klimas, J. (In Press) Prescription opioids, opioid use disorder, and Overdose Crisis: Current Dilemmas and Remaining Questions. (Published ahead of Print, June 4th) Canadian Journal on Addiction
I thank Lauren Gorfinkel for feedback on this post.
If you enjoyed reading this post, you may also like my poem about pain. See link below:
Youth opioid addiction, and related harms continue to rise in North America. With an increasing number of opioid overdoses, there remain significant barriers to care for youth with addiction. The time for evidence-based treatment of youth opioid addiction is now.
Based on the extensive literature on treatment of opioid use disorder among adults, medicated-assisted treatment is likely to be an important or even essential component of treatment of opioid use disorder for most youth. This post summarises a recent article in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, where we outline the current dilemmas and questions regarding the use of medication-assisted treatment for youth opioid addiction and propose some potential solutions based on the current evidence.
The prevalence of risky opioid use, opioid use disorder, and related harms continue to rise among youth in North America (age 15–25). These growing harms point to an urgent need to expand and scale-up early access to evidence-based treatments for youth opioid addiction. Treatment of youth opioid addiction may be different than treatment of adults because neurodevelopment of brain regions, associated with motivation and impulsivity, happens mainly during adolescence and young adulthood.
Strategies that reduce barriers to treatment commonly experienced by youth and that address clinical care dilemmas when treating youth opioid addiction are urgently needed.
Medications for youth opioid addiction
The American Academy of Paediatrics recently supported buprenorphine/naloxone and methadone for youth opioid addiction. Although research has shown their effectiveness in adults, only a few studies did so among youth.
Based on the strong evidence in the adults and available evidence to date among youth, first-line OAT for youth should be buprenorphine/naloxone, with methadone as an alternative treatment option when buprenorphine/naloxone cannot be used.
Minimum age requirement needs re-evaluation
The literature still disagrees regarding the minimal age requirement to prescribe OAT. For instance, buprenorphine/naloxone is currently approved for opioid addiction at age 16 in the United States and at age 18 in Canada. But the U.S. youth has to fail addiction treatment twice before they can be prescribed methadone under the age of 18. Also, treatment with medications has been prescribed to 10 times more adults than youth although it’s the first line of treatment in many guidelines. This underscores the urgent need to improve medication-assisted treatment access for youth. We still need safety data regarding use of OAT among youth. But the pros are likely to outweigh the cons given the lethality and multiple harms associated with opioid addiction.
Longer tapers are more effective than shorter tapers
How long should be the successful tapers and how to do them effectively? These questions are still unanswered by scientific literature. Studies to date have shown that longer tapers are more effective to reduce opioid use and prevent relapse For this reason, our provincial guidelines in British Columbia, Canada, recommend that tapers for adults, if undertaken, “occur over a minimum 52 weeks duration and with close monitoring during and after the taper given overdose risk is increased.”
Naltrexone injectable versus implantable
Opioid antagonists, such as Naltrexone, have not been evaluated widely among youth. Oral Naltrexone has many problems, such as low compliance, increased risk for relapse and overdose. The researchers should compare methadone or buprenorphine/naloxone with extended-release injectable or implantable naltrexone in youth. This information will help clinicians select the best treatment for youth opioid addiction.
Psychosocial interventions: retention on OAT remains a challenge
Psychosocial interventions are common for treating youth opioid addiction, but are done in a way that is not supported by science. For example, they consist of short-term detox with a referral to individual or group therapy in rehab or outpatient settings. Youth drop out from such treatment frequently. But retention on OAT remains a challenge. For example, one study found that only “56% of youth aged 18–25 years were retained on buprenorphine at 6 months, compared with a 78% of people aged 26 years or more.” OAT seems more efficacious in retaining youth in treatment. Psychosocial intervention is better done in combination with pharmacologic treatment. We need more trials involving youth.
The Prescription Opioid Addiction Treatment Study – POATS
The Prescription Opioid Addiction Treatment Study (POATS) showed that tapering off buprenorphine/naloxone (even after 12 weeks of treatment), was associated with a 90% relapse rate. Ongoing counselling did not make a difference. Based on the adult POATs study, it seems that keeping people on buprenorphine/naloxone is better than tapering them without supports. Psychosocial interventions may help people receiving OAT. Many studies found contingency management helpful. Researchers should do more studies on contigency management.
When in doubt, do not taper
Based on the above, we need more research to better understand optimal treatment approaches for OPIOID ADDICTION in youth. Based on the current evidence, buprenorphine/naloxone appears to be a safe and efficacious option for youth and we propose this should be first-line treatment for OPIOID ADDICTION. More studies comparing OAT and extended-release naltrexone are needed in this population. When treatment is initiated, longer duration (>52 weeks) of OAT is recommended. Decision to taper should be governed by the principle “when in doubt, do not taper” while taking into account the potential risks of relapse and overdose as well as access to chronic relapse prevention care; close monitoring is essential during and after the taper completion. We suggest psychosocial interventions be routinely offered in combination with OAT. Lastly, given the efficacy of OAT, we recommend these medications be provided based on the risk and benefit assessment of each case, regardless of age.
Cited study: Derek C. Chang, Jan Klimas, Evan Wood & Nadia Fairbairn. (In Press) Medication-assisted treatment for youth with opioid use disorder: Current dilemmas and remaining questions. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse Vol. 0 , Iss. 0,0