Few Teens Receive Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction

Less than one percent of adolescents addicted to opiates receive medications to help them quit, new research shows.  The Journal of Adolescent Health says that’s compared to 12 percent of adults that receive medication.

For Pamela Gonzalez, M.D., M.S., assistant professor with the department of Psychiatry, Medical School, this data is not surprising.

“We are fighting some long-held biases, as well as lack of long-term treatment outcome data in much younger patients,” said Gonzalez.

Those biases often begin with the fact that Methadone and buprenorphine, two of the drugs used for treatment, are opioids themselves. While many doctors and scientists disagree, including the American Academy of Pediatrics which came out in support of medication-assisted therapy in 2016, it is still a widespread view. In fact, many substance use disorder treatment programs won’t allow patients to be admitted who are taking methadone or buprenorphine.

“I’ve had patients decline medication, only because they wanted to attend certain treatment programs that forbid the medications,” said Gonzalez.

When it comes to the specifically younger patient, often in order to get a medication-assisted treatment plan they must first “fail” two psychosocial-based treatments. Some of these guidelines come from about the concern of the treatment’s impact on the not-yet fully-developed brain.

“Somewhere in there we are missing opportunities for prevention and earlier intervention,” said Gonzalez.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug use is highest among people in their late teens and twenties. In 2013, 22.6 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds reported using an illicit drug in a one-month period. Over the past several years in Minnesota alone, the number of emerging adults (18-24 years) entering treatment for opioid addiction, and dying from heroin overdose, has doubled.

Gonzalez believes a change can be made starting with involvement and advocacy from pediatric providers, such as pediatricians, child/adolescent psychiatrists, and pediatric nurse practitioners. She also encourages parents to get involved, specifically suggesting to look at a variety of opinion sources to help with research interpretation. Never hesitate to bring questions forward to your pediatrician or other health care providers.