Saturday, August 11, 2018
Harm Reduction Good; Harm Reduction Bad
Harm Reduction Treatment is a term which is used commonly in Addiction Medicine. It followed “abstinence based’ treatment. In other areas of medicine the term ‘palliative care’ is an equivalent expression.
The positive aspect of “Harm Reduction’ was that it provided care specifically for those who were not ready to embrace ‘abstinence based’ treatment or for those who had failed, even repeatedly failed, conventional abstinence based therapies.
Historically ‘abstinence based’ therapy for alcoholism was exemplified by the Gold Standard , Navy Pilot program. Navy pilots cost millions to train and flew jets worth even more millions. When they developed addiction as they did, grounding them caused a major loss, often involving suicide, while letting them fly, was obviously dangerous. The treatment which followed included a 30 day inpatient treatment, followed by 3 meetings a week of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), weekly drug and alcohol counselling and monthly visits to see a psychiatrist. At 5 years 80% of pilots were abstinent and flying. A major success.
This treatment with some variations is the treatment principally used for judges, doctors, other professionals, union members and all those ‘contributing citizens’ who individually or by insurance can afford the ‘best’. It is well known by the advocacy of such distinquished treatment programs as Betty Ford, Talbot, Homewood, Edgewood, Orchard etc. Often patients begin with a period of detox and follow up today can include SMART, a cognitive behavioural group therapy. Group therapy is the cornerstone of abstinence based therapy. A fundamental principle of addiction treatment in this model is that substance abuse compensates for relationship deficits. Accountability and support come through fellowship and community. Isolation begets addiction, participation treats addiction.
By contrast Harm Reduction Treatment has tended towards maintaining the substance use with a view to control. Originally the World Health Organization validated the Harm Reduction Programs only as they ‘lead to abstinence’. Abstinence is the ‘cure’ per se for addiction. To this end methadone, suboxone, Kadian and now Heroin are used as Opiate Replacement Therapy. Eventually patients were weaned off opiates however where in the abstinence models this occurred in weeks, in the Harm Reduction Model this might well take years.
Alcohol is provided in a controlled fashion on the hour for chronic alcoholics, maintaining the steady state alcohol level and avoiding withdrawal as well as the revolving door detox, hospital and jail scenarios.
There is no doubt that harm reduction is good Community Medicine. 30 years ago when I was doing a Community Medicine Residency I studied the Swiss Methadone Maintenance programs of the day, showing then as they do today, that providing methadone, reduces the spread of diseases associated with needles, like infections, most importantly hepatitis and HIV. They also dramatically reduce the cost of revolving door hospital, detox and jail scenarios. The legal cost alone for the theft associated with heroin use is horrendous and methadone simply dramatically reduces this.
Harm Reduction Treatment is very good for the community when it is approached responsibly and it’s fiscal benefits are understood.
Locally the Portland Hotel Society was a scandal with all manner of corruption and devastating failure as their Harm Reduction Model became dominated by crime and a ‘better living through chemistry’ attitude which indeed promoted drug abuse as opposed to treating it. The Portland Hotel Society has since modified it’s approach.
For individuals as opposed to the community, harm reduction can be very good. Methadone and suboxone specifically impressively reduce the use of needles and help individuals get free from the life of servitude supporting the criminal drug dealer factions and associated crime. Eventually patients who might otherwise have died often have the time to move on to abstinence based therapies. When the patients come for methadone or suboxone their other physical and mental health needs can be addressed. Otherwise they might well avoid health care. Housing, food, health care are all available as part of the a good methadone program. Certainly we encourage participation and provided biopsychosocial interventions to the patients on methadone. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC like other College programs across Canada and similarly in other civilized first world countries, historically managed the methadone programs and encouraged they take a wholistic approach to the patient. Opiate programs required a federal government waiver given that the laws against drugs like heroin were nation wide. Locally the addiction treatment has been transferred mostly to Province or State and University care.
Harm Reduction Therapy could well be seen as bad if all the doctor was doing was being a ‘drug pusher for the multinationals’ rather than using motivation therapy, 12 step facilitation therapy and cognitive behaviour therapy to move patients along the spectrum of motivation to change as laid out by Prochaska. The preventative medicine aim was through relationship therapy with the physician , psychiatrist, pharmacist and overall treatment team aiming to ensure the patient’s self esteem and health indices improved. These indeed do and for many individuals the methadone and suboxone treatment have been life saving. Heroin and other ‘needle maintenance programs’ are early ‘add ons’ whose value is not nearly as evident given that the key feature of methadone was that it moved patients off needles with the community risk inherent to methadone or suboxone, oral medications.
The alcohol therapy has been an end stage treatment model for chronic alcoholics who have failed all other programs and whose lives are more manageable without the drunk then withdrawal roller coaster broken by relationship with health care and managed hourly alcohol intake.
Champix and bupropion, nicotine replacement gums and patches, and vapes are all Harm Reduction Therapies which have had proven success in helping people become abstinent for nicotine and smoking.
Revia (naltrexone) is a medication which reduces craving for alcohol and empirically reduces alcohol intake in those who abuse. Acamprosate is another such medication.
Narcan kits which reverse overdose are definitely a harm reduction strategy especially when put into the hands of first responders. They are a simple preventative medicine strategy for those of my patients who I encourage to have on hand when they are using with family or friends trained to know how to use them.
The safe injection site is obviously another harm reduction strategy.
Needle Exchange programs are proven harm reduction therapy where the patient exchanges a dirty needle for a clean needle. Unfortunately locally the needle exchange program devolved into a ‘free needle’ program with needles being tossed out of a basket in the local park.
A variety of medications have been used along with diets to treat obesity and overeating, sometimes call food addiction. At the extreme, when behavioural change fails, surgical interventions such as stomach stapling have been long acknowledged as life saving.
So why is Harm Reduction Bad? Obviously it isn’t of itself. Reducing harm is good and the use of this marketing term is very seductive indeed. Unfortunately it can be ‘enabling’ and can cause the disease to persist given the huge element of denial involved in addiction. Further the Harm Reduction Therapies tend to be pharmaceutical or medicalized and costly compared to the low cost equivalence of the more labour intensive approaches of treatment centres and frankly almost cost free community support programs. Often all the high cost and front end approaches are used and use up the patients resources while in the end the recommendation is to continue in AA/NA or SMART as this is a chronic disease process and unfortunately the real issue is prevention of relapse.
When patients have work and family and community relationships still in tact they are most likely to benefit and succeed with the conventional abstinence based programs, detox, treatment centre, and group therapy. In traditional medicine this is considered the ‘primary’ care model and harm reduction therapy is considered ‘secondary’ or ‘tertiary care’.
Harm Reduction becomes ‘bad’ when judges and doctors and the wealthy are given the abstinence based approach while the poor are ‘maintained’ on their drugs without giving them the opportunity of ‘cure’ which comes with abstinence based models.
Further, the harm reduction models can contain an inherent negation of the patient’s capacity to change. Seminal studies have shown that a patients capacity to change and get well depends strongly on the therapists belief in their capacity to do so. If the therapist doesn’t believe the patient can overcome their addiction to heroin the therapist will indeed prove to be the rate limiting step. The success of AA and NA is that the rooms are simply full of individuals who have indeed climbed the Mount Everest of Recovery and encourage others to believe they too can succeed.
Both models have their naysayers and both models have their glorious success stories. The social justice warriors often argue that the addict and alcoholic should have ‘free’ stuff , in this case ‘free drugs’. Unfortunately the disease of addiction is one of ‘more’ and there simply isn’t enough of whatever to suit the active alcoholic or addict who will die or commit crimes to persist in his or her narcissistic hedonistic pursuits.
Should society pay to increase the risk to itself. Part of the difficulty today is that there are increasing numbers of those who feel society should allow them to ‘spread their disease’ , a group of HIV positive individuals having parties with ‘non infected’ but those seeking “solidarity”.
In the best of possible worlds when physicians, psychiatrists and other care givers are seeking what is best for the patients ,understanding the severity of the disease, the limits of resources and looking at each case individually there is rarely any conflict between the models .as in the individual’s life and care both models are at different times and sometimes together being used.
Politically, Harm Reduction Therapy has, I believe, a great deal more potential for harm than traditional abstinence based therapies. Naturally there is a concern that the rise in addiction and death has been parallel to the increase in Harm Reduction Programs. Is this an association or is some of this cause and effect. Changing the ‘drug dealer’ from the street criminal to the State has sent a different message. Legitimizing drug and alcohol abuse can be problematic. Promoting marijuana use for profit just like promoting alcohol for profit may cost individuals and communities while a few profit.
What is best for the individual, what is best for the community and what is best for the State and treating services are great when they all work together. Historically, the individual has been lost in the demands of community and State and those that ‘profit’ from individuals with disabilities such as addiction.
We have always done ‘Harm Reduction’ as doctors. My concern has principally been individuals get the best care. The group “Like Minded Doctors” developed in part to discuss these concerns.