New York Times headline: "Naloxone Saves Lives, but Is No Cure in Heroin Epidemic"
These headlines aren't inconsistent, but they do hint at the evolving national dialogue around naloxone. I would say there's a debate brewing around the appropriateness of naloxone access, but the truth is that the debate isn't new - it's been going on for decades. What makes it feel new to many of us is that the prescription drug and heroin epidemic is pushing our medical and public health professionals to more aggressively pursue any and all possible solutions at our disposal. And with every solution comes a critique.
Let's start with a few basic facts:
- Naloxone was approved by the FDA in 1971.
- Naloxone is an opioid antagonist, which means (in layman's terms) that the drug kicks opioids off of the receptors in the brain and replaces them, eliminating the "high" and reviving the patient (and also sending them into immediate withdrawal).
- Naloxone works quickly (approximately 2-3 minutes) and its effects last between 30 and 90 minutes depending on the type of opioid that was used; sometimes, more than one administration of naloxone is necessary to reverse an overdose.
- There is virtually zero potential for abuse of naloxone and virtually zero effect on an individual given naloxone who is not experiencing an overdose.
- Naloxone comes in various forms: generic via syringe, branded injector pens (EVZIO), nasal spray (Narcan or naloxone w/ atomizer).
Now to the debate, literally an existential one at that (you might say naloxone is the "to be or not to be" drug... that is the question...)
There are many (Centers for Disease Control, American Medical Association, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, American Society of Addiction Medicine) who support widespread access to naloxone. According to the CDC (and quoted in the AMA's white paper), from 1996 to 2014, the lives of more than 26,000 people were saved by naloxone.
There are others who express concern that widespread access to naloxone will give addicts a safety net, encouraging risky behavior. Governor Paul LePage (R) of Maine, never shy and certainly never concerned about causing offense, summed up the argument this way (in light of his veto of naloxone-related legislation): "Naloxone doesn't truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose. Creating a situation where an addict has a heroin needle in one hand and a shot of naloxone in the other produces a sense of normalcy and security around heroin use that serves only to perpetuate the cycle of addiction."
As so often occurs in complicated policy debates, blanket assumptions and blunt statements lead to poor dialogue and lack of action. So let's explore the nuance by segmenting the population of potential naloxone beneficiaries. Note that this isn't the only way to segment the population nor is it the most detailed, but it's better than lumping everyone together.
1. First responders: Here, there is little debate. First responders should be equipped with naloxone. They have a professional duty to save lives and naloxone will help them do that. They are trained medical professionals and to withhold a vital life-saving antidote in the midst of a prescription drug and heroin epidemic is blatantly irresponsible.
2. Drug abusers: Whether its prescription drugs or heroin, this is obviously a group at high risk for overdose. What Gov. LePage is missing in his inelegant portrait quoted above is that the person who overdoses will not be the one who administers the naloxone (having naloxone "in the other [hand]" doesn't do one any good if one is unconscious). He also misses the reality that naloxone administration leads to immediate withdrawal - rather than experiencing "normalcy and security," the addict, while thankfully alive instead of dead, is thrust directly into hell on Earth.
This segment of the patient population actually highlights two axes along which the debate takes place: First, should drug abusers have access to naloxone at all? Second, should we enable non-medically trained people (possibly fellow addicts) to administer the drug? If you believe in LePage's premise, that naloxone "merely extends [lives] until the next overdose," well, then... you are a cold and callous person who doesn't believe in the basic human aspiration toward redemption and recovery. Might it be a long and hard road? Yes. Might there be relapses and multiple overdoses requiring naloxone? Yes. If it was your loved suffering from the addiction, would you want to give them every possible chance at recovery? Yes. As to whether non-medically trained people should be able to administer it... if I can give my kid an EpiPen injection when he gets stung by a bee, then I can administer naloxone. No medical degree necessary.
Thank goodness the Maine Legislature had the good sense to override LePage's veto, allowing Maine to count itself among the 34 states with a standing order for naloxone.
3. Legitimate prescription drug users: This group is tricky. These patients are under the care of a doctor, receiving legal prescriptions for opioids, and securing those medications at a pharmacy. I note there could be overlap between this group the group 2 (drug abusers), but this group has the benefit of a doctor overseeing their prescription regimen. The CDC and AMA guidance on naloxone prescribing among primary care doctors is fairly consistent. A co-prescription for naloxone should be considered if the patient has a history of overdose, a concomitant script for a benzodiazepine, a history of substance use disorder, a mental health condition, or a medical condition that might make the patient susceptible to respiratory distress.
But wait. Aren't these all the same factors that should cause the doctor to reevaluate the appropriateness of prescribing opioids at all? Should a doctor manage the risk of overdose by prescribing an overdose antidote? Or should the doctor be more diligent in exploring non-opioid alternatives first?
This isn't just theory. We're seeing it in PRIUM cases. It's expensive, the cost is rising, and the benefit is unclear. Surely, there are circumstances in which naloxone will be appropriate for co-prescribing (perhaps immediately post-injury or post-surgery when opioids are indicated for acute pain and the patient has a history of overdose, for example). But the practice of co-prescribing naloxone for chronic pain patients is troubling.
When it comes to high dose opioid therapy for chronic pain, we need to demand more from prescribing doctors than a "just in case" antidote. Chronic pain care requires rigorous exploration of alternatives, difficult conversations with patients, careful management of medications, and a commitment to patient safety.
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