Many doctors aren't making full use of a medication that can wean people off addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers, according to results of a new survey.
Buprenorphine is the first drug for opioid use disorder that's approved for prescription by primary care physicians, allowing treatment in the privacy of a doctor's office.
But many doctors aren't applying for the federal waiver that would allow them to prescribe buprenorphine, said researcher Andrew Huhn. He's a postdoctoral fellow with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's behavioral pharmacology research unit.
Further, most who have obtained a buprenorphine waiver aren't prescribing the drug to as many patients as allowed, Huhn said.
This reluctance to fully utilize buprenorphine is hampering efforts to combat the epidemic of opioid abuse in the United States, Huhn said.
"This year is probably going to be the worst on record for overdose deaths," Huhn said. "It's possible we're going to have more drug overdose deaths this year than people that died in the Vietnam War."
More than 52,400 people died from overdose in 2015, and more than 59,000 OD deaths likely occurred in 2016, according to a recent article in The New York Times. By comparison, the U.S. military reports 58,220 personnel killed during the Vietnam War.
Buprenorphine acts upon the same brain receptors as opioid drugs, but its effects are weaker and level off even with increasing doses, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This "ceiling effect" lowers the risk of misuse and addiction.
"We know when we put people on buprenorphine, the risk of overdose goes way down and the risk of relapse goes way down," Huhn said. "It is a medication that is effective at stabilizing people's lives."
Since 2002, physicians have been able to prescribe it directly after they obtain a waiver from SAMHSA, even if they aren't addiction medicine specialists, the agency noted.