Teens Rarely Receive Proven Lifesaving Addiction Medication in U.S. Treatment Centers

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Despite a record-setting number of overdose deaths nationwide in 2022, a new study from Oregon Health & Science University finds that only one in four adolescent residential treatment centers nationwide provides buprenorphine, a proven medication to treat opioid use disorder. “It’s hard to imagine getting adolescents with opioid use disorder off fentanyl without buprenorphine,” says co-author Todd Korthuis, M.D., M.P.H., head of addiction medicine at OHSU. Credit: Oregon Health & Science University

A new study sheds light on resistance to using buprenorphine — a proven tool in fighting opioid epidemic.

New research reveals that only one in four adolescent residential treatment centers across the United States provides a medication used to treat opioid use disorder, despite an ever-rising number of overdose deaths among young people nationwide resulting from a surge of illicit fentanyl.

Researchers say the lack of buprenorphine in adolescent residential treatment centers undercuts U.S. efforts to alleviate an overdose epidemic that claimed more than 109,000 lives in 2022, according to predicted provisional statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. Recognizing the particular vulnerability of young people, especially as fentanyl now contaminates other illicit substances, OHSU researchers set out to determine how many adolescent treatment centers in the U.S. were providing buprenorphine to treat addiction.

Although buprenorphine is not approved in the U.S. for people younger than 16, there is no evidence to suggest major safety concerns for use at younger ages. The American Society of Addiction Medicine recommends that buprenorphine be considered for the treatment of opioid use disorder in younger people.

Korthuis acknowledged that some treatment providers have resisted using buprenorphine even with adult patients, claiming it’s replacing one drug for another.

“It’s a big issue,” he said. “But it’s something that we can change by supporting these treatment centers with education and technical assistance about buprenorphine, advocating for better funding to staff these centers, and by letting the public know that buprenorphine is necessary treatment in healing brains.”

Results of the new study suggest that most adolescent residential treatment centers could benefit from such support.

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