Study Finds Addicted Patients More Likely to Recover if Treatment Begins in the ER

By May Wilkerson 05/01/15

A Yale study found that addicts counseled in the emergency room sought treatment later on.

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Doctors treat patients in the ER for most medical conditions on the spot. But outside of an overdose or life-threatening condition, patients with an addiction are generally not treated with the same urgency, even though addiction is a chronic condition. Yet, if doctors began treatment for addiction right away, it could greatly improve their chances of recovery, according to the findings of a new study from Yale University.

“You can normalize this chronic disease like any other chronic disease," said Dr. Gail D'Onofrio, chief of emergency medicine at Yale’s med school.

She and her colleagues recently ran a test where they treated a group of patients with opioid addiction in the ER by prescribing medicine to ease withdrawal symptoms, namely buprenorphine plus naloxone, and offering a brief 10-minute counseling session and a referral for long-term treatment.The results were positive: nearly three-quarters of this group of patients were in treatment 30 days later.

By comparison, among a group of patients who received only a referral, 37% were in treatment after 30 days, about half the success rate of the first group. And 45% of patients who received the brief counseling intervention and the referral, but no medication, were in treatment after 30 days.

Currently, doctors wishing to prescribe buprenorphine face certain limitations: they must be trained in its use, can only treat a limited number of patients and must register with the government, except in the case of acute or life-threatening withdrawal.

But these findings suggest that a brief intervention and on-the-spot prescription of buprenorphine can make a world of difference in boosting a patient’s chance of recovery. "I'm still talking to them about their motivation to start treatment, but I'm also giving them something to help them with their withdrawal," D'Onofrio said.

Since this study took place at one location, it remains unknown whether the approach would be as effective in other hospitals. Also, the Yale study offered the drugs and counseling free-of-charge, but the program may not be affordable by other medical institutions.

Still, the results are encouraging and have been supported by other experts in the field of addiction treatment.

"I think what they did was great," says Dr. Charmian Sittambalam, from the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. "It's not often that you see the [emergency department] taking such a vested interest in something that's a chronic issue."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.

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