Addiction is a chronic disease — like diabetes and asthma — and, just like other chronic diseases, it requires treatment by medical professionals. Addiction can’t be cured — but it can be successfully treated.
While best managed with a combination of medical interventions, psychosocial supports and lifestyle changes, evidence clearly shows us that U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved medications should be a central component of treating opioid addiction. While some argue that patients should stop using medication for opioid addiction treatment, we must remember the goal of treating chronic diseases: to put symptoms into remission. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect perfect adherence to a treatment plan for any chronic disease. If patients misuse drugs or alcohol while trying to abstain, it doesn’t mean that they are failing in their treatment, or that they are a failure. It means that they are managing their disease one day at a time.
Addiction medicine is an extremely rewarding specialty. Much of what we do as doctors is done to postpone death. However, when I treat addiction, I can truly save a life. People addicted to opioids can and do get their lives back. When people receive appropriate treatment, dramatic improvement is often seen within weeks. My patients tell me that their families are talking to them again, that they can see their kids again, that they have an apartment, that they’ve gotten a job.
Change for the better
We will not find our way out of this epidemic, however, with outdated treatment methods and a system that gives too few people access to evidence-based care. We must end the discrimination and stigma surrounding this disease. Patients need access to evidence-based care and a better understanding of all medically-appropriate options available to them. This is what we would expect with any other medical condition. If we truly want to end our nation’s opioid overdose epidemic, then we must stop doing what we know does not work and focus on what we know does. It’s time to get our friends and families back.