Is it okay to store or save some extra doses of buprenorphine?
Patients who are taking buprenorphine sometimes feel the need to save up doses. This can be for a variety of factors, but generally centers around a fear of running out. Maybe they are concerned they will lose their health insurance, or won't be able to pay the out-of-pocket costs one week. Maybe they are having difficulties meeting total-abstinence demands in a punitive program, and fear being kicked out. Maybe their pharmacy does not consistently stock the medicine.
"Given the unpredictability of anything related to opioids these days, who could blame the patient?" says John McCarthy, a researcher, professor, and practitioner who has been working with patients on medication-assisted treatment for over 40 years, adding, "look at the plight of the thousands of pain patients being cut off for no reason except physician fear or some organizational mandate."
But there are some potential issues that come with saving up doses.
Saving Doses Means Decreasing Doses
In order for a patient to save part of her dose, she has to refrain from taking some of her dose. Which means she's taking less than she is prescribed. Buprenorphine dosing is relative to each individual—so it could be possible for someone to be prescribed a little more than she truly needs. But if that is not the case, saving up doses could potentially lead to an avoidable relapse. By not taking enough medicine consistently, she could throw herself into mild withdrawal. Or, she could have her physical withdrawal symptoms taken care of, but not her cravings. No medicine can completely do away with the psychological component of addiction, however; buprenorphine does help with cravings to an extent. By not taking a full dose, a patient could leave herself vulnerable to intense cravings, which will obviously heighten her risk of relapsing.
Saving Doses Also Involves an Element of Deception
In order to save up doses without triggering a dosing decrease, a patient will probably have to lie to his prescribing doctor. While in active addiction, many of us engaged in all kinds of deception—whether that was lying, stealing, or cheating family, friends, and significant others. A lot of people believe that in order to truly recover from addiction, a patient must not simply stop taking drugs, but also change unwanted behaviors. Which makes sense. Any time someone wants to change a part of himself he finds destructive or harmful, he has to be willing to change some of his thoughts and behaviors. This applies to addiction as well. Is saving a dose out of fear of not having it quite the same? That's up for debate. But some people think the act of intentionally and consistently lying to one's doctor is a continuation of harmful behaviors that may have been cultivated as part of the active addiction.
"Officially, we do not want patients to hoard medication. Many physicians would say it’s an indication that the old way of addictive thinking persists…that they must hoard or ‘stash’ medications because medical establishment can’t be trusted, and because they want to control their own dose and medication," says Jana Burson, an addiction medicine physician who specializes in medication-assisted treatment. She also adds, however, that "In reality, I’ve seen some appalling lack of concern for a patient on MAT on the part of providers and pharmacists. I don’t think patients are being unrealistic by wanting a few days of spare medications. She also notes that, " I wouldn’t want them to accumulate a huge stash. Maybe up to one week I could understand."
An Individual Decision
Essentially, honesty in recovery is ideal—especially between patient and doctor. But given the current political and economic climate surrounding opioids and opioid agonist therapy, patients may have some legitimate cause for concern. Each patient will have to make an individual decision on this matter; I am certainly not going to police patients. It sounds like top prescribing physicians don't wish to either. But it is important to ensure that patients are getting the full benefit of medicine and not skimping at the expense of their recovery. It's also important that, if you do decide to save a few doses, you regularly check in with yourself and make sure you're not going overboard or being deceptive in a way which can harm your treatment goals. That definitely means that you’re not selling extra doses.
"The best approach to prevent any of this is to have a close working relationship with the patient to explore fears and provide some assurance of protection against arbitrary discontinuation of care," says McCarthy.
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Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer with an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. Her blog, Betty's Battleground, was recently ranked by Feedspot as one of the top 75 PTSD blogs. She is also a regular contributing writer for HealthyPlace's trauma blog. Her work has appeared on Vice, Vox, Stat News, The Fix, and others. When she isn't working, she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction.