Thursday, July 7, 2016

Medicine to Psychiatry to Parking Lot: The Evolution Of Detox Over The Past 30 years

There is probably no better indicator of discriminatory rationing in the business run era of health care than the way substance users, alcoholics, and addicts are treated.  If you think about it - this is the ideal population to discriminate against.  In the severe situations where hospital detoxification is needed most of these folks are isolated and they have burned a lot of bridges.  They don't have a lot of friends and family members advocating for medical resources.  Most are unconcerned about their own health and many have significant medical morbidity associated with the addiction.  With any addiction, the tendency to continue the addicted states governs decision making so they enthusiastically leave medical facilities without addressing the problem as soon as a physician gives them clearance to go.  They are quite happy to keep bed occupancy and length of stay to the very minimum.  That is if they get admitted at all these days.

Back when I was in training as a medical student, I was fortunate to get most of my clinical training in large public facilities like county hospitals or VA hospitals.  In those days, patients with alcoholism or addictions who needed detoxification were admitted to Internal Medicine Services.  This was a great idea for several reasons.  Many people with addictions have significant medical comorbidity either independent of the addiction or due to it.  I saw many cases of acute pneumonia, pneumonia and meningitis, acute hepatitis, cirrhosis, pancreatitis, hepatic encephalopathy, delirium tremens, withdrawal seizures, and Wernicke's encephalopathy.  I don't think there is any better place in a hospital to address those problems than under the care of Internal Medicine specialists.  Until you have seen enough people critically ill and in withdrawal - it is difficult to appreciate the life-threatening aspects of intoxication or withdrawal from an addictive substance.  At some point in the mid to late 1980s, the detoxification landscape changed dramatically.  Suddenly a large number of those patients needing detox were sent to psychiatry services.  Only the obviously ill and delirious could get admitted to Medicine.  After the triage decision in the Emergency Department (ED) it was up to Psychiatry to sort out the problems and treat them as well as doing the detoxification.  There was also the development of county detox units, basically as a safer environment than the street, but offering little to no medical detoxification services.  If a patient went to a county detox unit and had a seizure there or became delirious - they could always be sent back to the ED.

A few years into my inpatient career. utilization reviewers started to deny the cost of care for anyone on my unit getting detox services.  That included people with the highest risk profile - depression, alcoholism, and suicidal ideation or behavior.  The primary rationale of these reviewers was that the patient did not require detoxification on an inpatient unit - even if they were in active withdrawal, taking high doses of detox medications, and had been discovered attempting suicide prior to admission.  The denial was based on an addiction or alcoholism and the fact that managed care companies had mandated that it was no longer an acceptable reason to treat somebody in a hospital.  The year was about 1990 and it was clear that this was a blanket denial of anyone with an addiction.  That had the predictable effect of inpatient psychiatry no longer being a resource for safe medical detoxification.  We are still dealing with the fallout from these business decisions 26 years later.  The fallout takes several forms including:

1.  A loss of infrastructure - there are no longer a significant number of Internists or Psychiatrists who routinely diagnose and treat withdrawal states and the associated addictions.  Most hospitals in any state do not have these services with the exception of the occasional person who is agitated or delirious in the ED and requires intubation and ICU support.  One of the frequent suggestions I hear about the current opioid epidemic is whether or not physicians are adequately trained in addictions.  With the loss of a detoxification infrastructure, I doubt that medical students and residents are seeing anywhere near the number of patients with addictions that they need to see relative to 30 years ago.

2.  A proliferation of inadequate detoxification facilities - a lot of the current facilities are run by counties and there is no medical aspect to treatment.  Decisions to get medical assistance may be made by someone with no medical background.  These facilities do not have environments that are managed to provide a calm and non-threatening atmosphere.  Many people admitted to them are fearful of the other patients and see the detoxification as a penalty.  They leave as soon as possible - even if they are still experiencing withdrawal symptoms.  Some of the facilities will only accept patients with a positive blood alcohol level by breathalyzer, and they discharge people when their estimated blood alcohol content reaches a certain level.  If you need detoxification from a sedative hypnotic or an opioid or several compounds -  you are out of luck.

City and county jails also double as detox facilities, in the same way that they double as psychiatric hospitals.  A common history is a patient on methadone or buprenorphine maintenance who is incarcerated, not given their usual maintenance medications and who is forced to go into acute withdrawal.  People who have been taking sedative hypnotics or using alcohol can also go into acute withdrawal that is potentially more serious.  Correctional facilities need systems in place to assure adequate and safe care for incarcerated individuals to prevent these acute withdrawal syndromes.  There are always a number of people with alcohol and drug use problems who die while they are incarcerated and as far as I can tell - these deaths are never investigated to determine if they received adequate medical and psychiatric care.

3.  A proliferation of "outpatient detox" - I can't really pinpoint when it became acceptable for patients with uncontrolled alcohol or drug use to suddenly manage their own detoxification using addictive drugs, but it is a common scenario these days.  Go into the ED with alcohol withdrawal and leave with a benzodiazepine to take on a scheduled basis.  Nobody should be too surprised if that medication is ingested at a higher than directed rate.  At times the entire bottle is taken on day 1.

4.  A disrupted spectrum of addiction care - apart from preventing life-threatening complications, the main reason for detoxification is to disrupt the cycle of addiction so that the affected person can get past all of the negative reinforcement (cravings, preoccupation, physical withdrawal symptoms) that keep the addiction going.  Without this modality, people are at home trying to cautiously taper off a drug or alcohol.  Many will go on for years without any success and they will be frustrated by the lack of abstinence or sobriety and give up.  Some with leave a clinic or ED with a supply of medication in order to try to detoxify themselves and realize that they are not able to take that medication on the suggested schedule to complete a safe detox.  Many will feel guilty or ashamed about going to AA or NA meetings while they are still using drugs or alcohol and give up.  Adequate detox avoids all of these problems with a rapid and safe approach to the initial stage of recovery from addiction.  

5.  The myth that business managers know what is best - the managerial class in America continues to run medicine without any knowledge of measurement, statistics, or quality.  In this case the logic seems obviously wrong.  Since the need for medical detoxification is an emergency it should be difficult to deny coverage for this condition.  That denial has been more or less routine and the cumulative denial has led to a serious degradation of services available for alcohol and drug use problems.

When I think about how medical treatment is supposed to work, every health plan should have adequate residential or hospital detox services for quality, safety and continuity of care.  Those facilities need to be more than holding tanks.  The environment has to be respectful, quiet, and comfortable where every patient feels safe and like they are being provided adequate care.  Active psychiatric consultation needs to occur because of the high comorbidity of psychiatric problems with addiction.  The current opioid epidemic has precipitated a discussion of improving the infrastructure to treat addiction.  That would not be too difficult since a large part of that infrastructure has been rationed out of existence in the last 20 years.

This sequence of events also has implications for all of the ideas about mandated physician education about opioid prescribing.  In some states the requirement is extensive and in many at this point it is mandated for licensure.  These mandates are shortsighted without the necessary infrastructure.  Addiction and detox services require administrative support and not administrative rationing.  Mandated education for physicians in not likely to do much good as long as they are sending addicted patients out with a bottle of medications and they end up detoxing in the parking lot.

It is time to drastically improve the treatment of all patients with alcohol and substance use disorders and stop the long-standing discrimination against them.      

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

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