By HANS DUVEFELT, MD
We knew that the most powerful way to provide substance abuse treatment is in a group setting. Group members can offer support to each other and call out each other’s self deceptions and public excuses, oftentimes more effectively than the clinicians. They share stories and insights, car rides and job leads, and they form a community that stays connected between sessions.
Participants with more experience and life skills may say things in group that we clinicians might hesitate saying, like “Now you’re whining” and “Time to put on your big boy pants”. They can become role models by being further along in their recovery and by at the same time revealing their own fear or respect for the threat of relapse.
What has also happened in our clinic, entirely unplanned, was that after an informational meeting where we explained the group model and had a national expert physician speak about opioid recovery, several parents raised their hand and said there should be a group for families, too.
We listened and within a few months we started such a group and now, a year and a half into it, the group is co-led by a few of our patients, who naturally had become leaders of the patient group earlier.
My aunt Marion is in the hospital dying of liver and kidney failure, the result of her 20-year struggle with heroin use. I was told of her imminent death the same day news broke about a vaccine against the drug. “Breakthrough heroin vaccine could render drug ‘useless’ in addicts,” one headline read. “Scientists create vaccine against heroin high,” proclaimed another.
Meanwhile, my aunt finds temporary relief in the ever more frequent administration of opiate pain medication — the very kind of drugs she used illegally.
The idea of an anti-addiction vaccine is not new. For nearly 40 years scientists have been working on vaccines against all kinds of addictions, including nicotine, marijuana and alcohol. There are even trials of vaccines to prevent obesity. None of the anti-addiction vaccines has yet received Food and Drug Administration approval, however, and most of the studies are still in their early stages.
The headlines trumpeting a heroin vaccine were based on a finding that the drug had proved to be effective on mice during trials in Mexico (a nation that could use some good news related to drugs). Scientists now plan to test the patented vaccine in humans. If all goes well, the vaccine could be available in five years — too late for my aunt but providing a glimmer of hope for the estimated 1 million heroin addicts in the United States. Perhaps.
Six years ago, when I was a doctoral student researching heroin addiction in northern New Mexico, I received an email from a scientist studying a possible vaccine against the drug’s use. The study was in rat models, but early results were promising and suggested the likelihood of a therapeutic effect for humans. Aware of the devastating heroin epidemic in New Mexico, which had the highest rate of heroin-related deaths in the Unites States, and of my work trying to understand it, the scientist wanted to offer some hope. He wrote that he could imagine a time when heroin addiction, in New Mexico and around the world, would be a thing of the past. I wanted to believe him, but I was less optimistic.
One of the most common ideas in the whole healthcare financing discussion is a moral one. Why, people say, should my taxes and my healthcare premiums go to take care of the huge medical problems of people who don’t take care of themselves? As one commenter on THCB put it: “…self inflicted injuries to not be covered at all, ideally. If someone drinks their liver away I don’t think we should all have to buy them a new one. Same for smoking.”
This is a common idea, one that seems logical and right on the surface. But there are four assumptions built into it, all four of which have problems:
1) That the “self-inflicted injuries” that people commonly identify (smoking, drinking, other addictions, obesity) actually are major predictors of cost.
2) That we can clearly differentiate “self-inflicted injuries” from other medical problems
3) That to the extent that they are actually “self-inflicted,” the patient could just stop doing them if they just had enough gumption, or enough something.
4) That if our goal is to cut unnecessary medical costs, refusing medical coverage would cut costs.
But each of these four is problematic.
1) The best predictors of medical costs are not smoking, drinking, or obesity, but depression and stress. (“Association Between Health Risks and Medical Expenditures“) So trying to dis-insure “self-inflicted injuries” might miss the target of lowering healthcare costs.
2) Trying to decide what is “self-inflicted” and what is not presents a major problem. A friend has a lifelong condition that gives him excruciating pain. He has struggled manfully (and successfully) against addiction to booze and painkillers to ameliorate his pain. He has always felt bitter toward his father because his father was addicted to booze and painkillers. He recently realized that his condition is genetic, and guessing from some symptoms he observed, realized that his father was fighting the same excruciating pain. His attitude toward his late father changed instantly.