On Counseling and Medication-Assisted Treatment

Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health categorizes substance use disorders, a.k.a. addictions, with “chronic and expensive medical illnesses” such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, asthma, arthritis, and chronic pain. The first order of treatment for these illnesses is medical care, primarily through medication. Patients with these illnesses are not required to receive multiple counseling sessions prior to receiving medication.

Challenging Myths about Medication Assisted Treatment for Opioid Use DisorderCounseling and support groups do exist for assistance with these illnesses. But counselors help patients comply with the course of treatment determined by their physicians. Support groups can help people live life while having the illness. But counseling and support aren’t replacements for medication and medical care. Except in addictions treatment.

Counseling is not medical care for a medical condition. We need to give people with the medical condition of substance use disorders (SUDs) medical care first – which may or may not include medication-assisted treatment (MAT) – but which may include stabilizing medical treatment for co-occurring mental and physical illnesses. Confusing medical care with counseling results in what the New England Journal of Medicine reported in December 2016: “Despite the demonstrated efficacy of maintaining abstinence by treating patients with opioid agonists, patients can remain on clinic waiting lists for months, during which time they are at risk of premature death.”

With regard to MAT and counseling, my conclusions from reading the research are that for most people most of the time, counseling has no significant effect on abstinence among those receiving MAT for SUDs, whether for opioid use disorder or other SUDs. Counseling may have a larger effect on those with co-occurring SUDs and mental disorders, but those effects would occur over time. People with the medical condition of SUDs do not have time for the possibility that counseling might be effective. They need medical care stat.

From the Surgeon General’s report, page 4-21: “Nevertheless, multiple factors create barriers to widespread use of MAT. These include provider, public, and client attitudes and beliefs about MAT…”

“Buprenorphine is an effective medication in the maintenance treatment of heroin dependence, retaining people in treatment at any dose above 2 mg, and suppressing illicit opioid use (at doses 16 mg or greater) based on placebo-controlled trials…Methadone is superior to buprenorphine in retaining people in treatment, and methadone equally suppresses illicit opioid use.”
Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2014

We need to shift our policies from belief-based practices to what the science reports is best practices addictions treatment for people with substance use disorders: medical care first. Then, we can work on secondary, individualized assistance, perhaps counseling, case management, support groups, or support services according to each client’s case.

. . . . .

“In fact, no rigorous study has ever been able to show that the addition of psychosocial services to opioid agonist therapy alone improves outcomes in the treatment of opioid use disorder.”
Lean Forward, Harvard Medical School, May 2017

“Despite the demonstrated efficacy of maintaining abstinence by treating patients with opioid agonists, patients can remain on clinic waiting lists for months, during which time they are at risk of premature death. The use of interim treatment with buprenorphine without formal counseling while patients remain on waiting lists may mitigate this risk during delays in treatment.”
New England Journal of Medicine, December 2016

“The commonly held belief that opioid agonist treatment alone is inferior treatment to such treatment combined with psychosocial treatment (which many will understand to mean counseling) is not supported by the research evidence and it results in limitations on the use of these effective medications.”
Journal of Addiction Medicine, July/August 2016

“[T]here is little empirical evidence suggesting which psychosocial treatments work best in conjunction with medication-assisted treatment as there are relatively few studies comparing the differential effectiveness of various psychosocial approaches (eg, CM [contingency management], MI [motivational interviewing]) for individuals receiving medications for the treatment of opioid addiction.”
Journal of Addiction Medicine, March/April 2016

“Clinical trials show that opioid agonist therapy (OAT) with methadone or buprenorphine is more effective than behavioral treatments, but state policymakers remain ambivalent about covering OAT for long periods…OAT is associated with lower total healthcare expenditures compared to other forms of behavioral treatment for patients with opioid addiction.”
– Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, October 2015

“Supplementing standard medical management with cognitive-behavioural therapy did not further reduce opioid use or promote abstinence among primary care patients being maintained on buprenorphine.”
Drug and Alcohol Findings, 2013

“For the considered outcomes [retention in treatment and use], it seems that adding any psychosocial support to standard maintenance treatments do not add additional benefits.”
Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2011

“Consistent with results from a previous study of predominantly heroin-dependent patients receiving buprenorphine-naloxone in a primary care setting, individual drug counseling did not improve opioid use outcomes when added to weekly medical management visits.”
Archives of General Psychiatry, 2011

“We conducted a 24-week randomized, controlled clinical trial with 166 patients assigned to one of three treatments: standard medical management and either once-weekly or thrice-weekly medication dispensing or enhanced medical management and thrice-weekly medication dispensing…All three treatments were associated with significant reductions from baseline in the frequency of illicit opioid use, but there were no significant differences among the treatments.”
New England Journal of Medicine, July 2006

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) requires that an MAT treatment provider be able to provide or refer patients to counseling. Other than this wording in CARA – “appropriate counseling and behavioral therapies” – neither mentions the type, length or number of sessions of counseling required. Wisely, for an individual, the law does not require him or her to receive counseling in order to receive MAT. Unwisely, in Virginia, Medicaid patients are required to receive SUD counseling in order to be covered for either methadone or buprenorphine.

Image: Challenging the Myths about Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) from The National Council for Behavioral Health

Laurel Sindewald contributed to the research for this report.

Last updated 6/20/2017.

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