47,600 people died from drug overdoses involving opioids in 2017. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of fentanyl-induced fatal overdoses rose dramatically, accounting for a majority of overdose deaths. While preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control shows a marginal decline in fatal overdoses in 2018, from 70,237 to 68,557, it also reveals that fentanyl is still the primary cause of fatal overdoses.1 Naloxone is a non-opioid wonder drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. It is short-acting, and by temporarily reversing the effects of opioids, it gives a person with an opioid use disorder (OUD) a second chance—an opportunity to receive treatment. As a result of campaigns by, among others, the Surgeon General2 and the CDC to improve naloxone access, retail pharmacies increased naloxone dispensing from 2012 to 2018. Despite the increase in dispensation by pharmacies, only one naloxone prescription was dispensed for every 69 high-dose opioid prescriptions in 2018.3 In the old days, I remember patients saying that they felt stigmatized at the pharmacy when they heard, "Mr. Jones, your Elavil is ready." Stigma kept many depressed patients from filling prescriptions. But in this case, is the challenge both stigma and the lack of pharmacist or health care provider education?4 It is tough to pinpoint a cause explaining this data.
The CDC and Surgeon General encourage us to improve naloxone access at the local level, including through prescribing and pharmacy dispensing. Widespread distribution of naloxone is an essential component of the public health response to the opioid overdose epidemic. Unfortunately, the lowest rates of naloxone dispensing are in the areas with the highest opioid overdose rates. We are in the third phase of the opioid epidemic, with pain clinics’ overprescribing practices overtaken first by heroin and, more recently, by fentanyl. Individuals who overdose often overdose again, and many patients treated in addiction programs or health providers' offices through MAT often relapse.
For the treatment community, adverse outcomes and continued overdose deaths are, naturally, extremely upsetting. OUD treatment program employees frequently complain of burnout. High turnover in many programs is a major problem. Some are frustrated by recidivism rates, others because some patients are not offered MAT. Some patients cease their MAT course, and others drop out of treatment altogether. Yet experts have consistently agreed that while MAT, due to a lack of options, has not helped us combat cocaine or methamphetamine use disorders, it can be enormously helpful in managing OUD. A recent review, written by James Bell and John Strang, looks at the overall evidence on MAT and compares the relative benefits of different medications, helping to shed light on this critical public health issue. It is important to keep in mind, however, how contentiously and frequently some of our evidence is debated. We lack, for example, prospective, long-term, oncology-like, 5-year studies on the subject. MAT is debated—and so are standards measuring patient "outcomes." For a physician with an OUD, the relevant outcome standards may include a return to practice, 5-year sobriety, urine testing, and fitness for duty. In other cases, outcome standards may include coming to a treatment program, or following an MAT course, or simply not overdosing or dying.