The value of medications for opioid use disorder

Written by Troy Seibert, Public Health – Seattle & King County, Overdose Prevention and Response

As we confront an alarming rise in overdose deaths, King County is working to expand access to a proven, life-saving intervention. Medications for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD), specifically buprenorphine, lowers risk of death by about 50%. These medications, along with, community education and access to harm reduction services, are critical to stem the overdose crisis in our community.

Substance use disorder can affect anyone, from any background. It touches every community. When using traditional treatment facilities like withdrawal management (commonly known as detox), outpatient, and residential or inpatient (commonly known as rehab) it is always good to couple it with medications for opioid use disorder, due to relapse risk upon release. With high-potency opioids such as fentanyl causing overdose deaths in King County at levels never seen before – from just 3 in 2015, to 171 in 2020, to a record-high 382 last year in 2021– these traditional methods are not enough.  

The medication buprenorphine is a vital, life-changing tool. It can help people stabilize and create a window for them to seek the kinds of help that they feel they need most. Expanding access to buprenorphine and other medications (methadone and naltrexone), without barriers and as quickly as possible, has been a primary focus of Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC).

Reducing barriers to services

Medications can play a critical role by stabilizing withdrawal symptoms and cravings. This allows people to engage with services and activities that support their recovery.

Low-barrier access means that a person with opioid use disorder can get a same-day prescription, regardless of insurance status, and without a requirement to engage in counseling. This access to medications is now available at three King County Public Health Centers (Eastgate Public Health Center, Downtown Public Health Center and the Public Health Center at Navos in Burien). These locations complement about 30 other low-barrier access points in King County, as identified by the Washington Recovery Helpline MOUD Locator – about twice as many locations as we had four years ago.

These low-barrier access points are especially important for people who can’t access medication from other sources.

“Treatment with buprenorphine or methadone can reduce the risk of overdose and reduce the recurrence of opioid use. We work to ensure that the most vulnerable are able to access these medications, including those who may be living homeless, and those who are uninsured. We help connect people with these life-saving medications, as well as other services at other locations if needed.” 

Dr. David Sapienza, staff physician, Downtown Public Health Center

Low-barrier services are meant to make it as easy as possible to seek help. If we only address highly motivated individuals, we will miss many folks who do want to change their lives but may not be interested in, or ready to, seek the traditional package of detox followed by outpatient or residential treatment.

To find low barrier access to medications to treat opioid use disorder please see the Washington Recovery Helpline’s MOUD Locator for programs in your area that fit your needs. 

Changing how we talk and think

Low-barrier services are about meeting people where they are. People who have sought help for opioid use disorder often report that their level of engagement with treatment services depends a lot on how they were treated when first connecting with a program. Sometimes providers can turn potential clients off because their beliefs do not align with the clients’.

The pillars of empathy, compassion, and open-mindedness need to be at the forefront of a healthy provider-to-client relationship. Public Health has produced a video focused on reducing the stigma people who use drugs experience, especially in healthcare settings.

“People who have tried to move into recovery have faced a lot of barriers and challenges inside the healthcare system. Medical staff already judging who they are before they even arrive. I think that stigma has made it difficult for people who are struggling,” Dr. Christopher Yee, a physician at Eastgate Public Health, said in the recent anti-stigma campaign video.

As service providers, it is on each of us to do our part to be a safe and supportive conduit for help.

What you can do to help

If you have a loved one who struggles with opioid use disorder, it is important to meet them where they are at.

  • Make sure they know about medication for opioid use disorder.
  • Show empathy and support. Praise and encourage even the smallest attempts at positive change.
  • If you or someone you know may be interested in treatment for a substance use disorder, call the Washington Recovery Helpline, use the MOUD locator above, or call one of our three Public Health centers.

Originally published March 4, 2022