Exercising my buprenorphine waiver for the first times


With my patients I can make a pact

Per the modified Harrison Act

Buprenorphine,

A blocker of morphine

Can help, and that is a fact.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I danced back from the brink of burnout in 2010, and, honoring a one-year non-compete clause, went to have adventures and work in out-of-the-way locations.  After jobs in Alaska, New Zealand, Iowa, and Nebraska, I returned home and took up a part-time position with a Community Health Center; I’m now down to 40 hours a week.

In 1914, the Harrison Act mandated that physicians could not prescribe narcotics to treat narcotic addiction, which, at the time, seemed a pretty good idea.  Using morphine to get someone off heroin, or vice versa, didn’t make much sense. Yet 3000 doctors went to jail for defying the Act.

Time marched on, and scientists discovered compounds that could counteract morphine and its cousins, giving rise to a new class of chemicals, narcotic antagonists.  The novel drug naloxone (trade name, Narcan) came during my time in med school, and quickly became a staple in ERs all over the country.  If someone came in OD’d on heroin, you could just inject a vial or two and save a life.

Further chemical sophistication led to drugs with mixed effects; in some ways like a narcotic blocker, and in some ways like a narcotic.  In residency, when confronted with a drug-seeking patient, I learned to offer one of these narcotic agonist-antagonists, warn the patient of withdrawal if they were addicts, and watch them storm out of the ER.

As time went on, methadone showed its utility to block narcotic’s euphoria or high and squelch craving for narcotics.  Because of the 1914 law a doc could use methadone to treat pain, but could only use it to treat addiction in a licensed methadone treatment center.

Buprenorphine, a compound available since 1980, eventually established itself as a useful agent in treating addiction.  Again any doctor with a DEA number could use it for pain, but only those with a special waiver could use it to treat addiction.  But that treatment could be based in a physician’s office.

In our quadrant of the state, only 3 doctors have that waiver, though it takes a mere 9 hours of education to qualify.  I got mine over the summer so I could fill in for one of my partners.  In the time since the only methadone program in a hundred mile radius shut down.  And for months, the only patients who showed interest would not have fit the entrance criteria.

In the last two weeks, three patients have requested entrance into the program.  I confer with my more experienced partner on each one.  He tells me his buprenorphine practice brings him tremendous satisfaction.

I have cared for one of those three patients since I arrived at my current position, and writing that first prescription came as a relief.

Confidentiality limits what I can say about the patients, but it doesn’t limit what I say about myself.  I have lots of first-hand experience with chronic pain, and today ranked as one of the worst since the summer.  I try to walk normally, and I try not to grunt or grimace when I sit down or stand up.  I focus on the patient, but I also tell my story.  Those who want to score drugs for remarketing show themselves with stridency, those who listen usually end up demonstrating a real desire to get on with their lives.

Once, a patient revealed that the pain had completely gone, obviating my tale.  That happened only once, and the story brought light to my day.

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2 Responses to “Exercising my buprenorphine waiver for the first times”

  1. mundoscope Says:

    Thanks for another interesting post. I’m sure your prescription practices are adequate. Just emphasizing that buprenorphine too has potential for misuse. In Finland where I practice, it is THE most abused opioid (a national specialty I guess).

    • walkaboutdoc Says:

      I agree that patients can and will abuse buprenorphine.

      Buprenorphine is a small step in the right direction; I see it as about a 20% solution, 80% being a combination of good counseling, a willingness to change, and insight.

      I have stopped seeing new buprenorphine patients except on Mondays. Our other buprenorphine-licensed doc won’t see the patients unless they’re already in counseling; I will probably follow soon.

      On the good side, I have no hesitations about running urine drug screens on EVERYONE. And I’m learning that the less energy I put into judging my patients, the more energy I have at the end of the day.

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