The death toll from the opioids epidemic continues to soar – nearly 64,000 people died in 2016 alone.
Scientists are working to find creative tools to fight it, and President Donald Trump has called the overdose crisis a public health emergency. But he has not yet outlined any targeted solutions aside from calling for drug dealers to be given the death penalty.
A growing cadre of health professionals say we already have a science-backed treatment that works. It's called medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, and it involves administering FDA-approved medications that help curb cravings and reduce the excruciating symptoms of withdrawal.
"Medications are an effective treatment for opioid addiction," Kelly J. Clark, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, told Business Insider.
The problem is that very few people can get those medications.
Only about half of private-sector treatment programs for opioid use disorder currently offer access to MAT, and of those that offer it, only one third of patients actually receive the medication, according to a study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.
There are many reasons for this lack of access to medication. Some stem from a misconception about how the treatments – which can include buprenorphine, methadone, or naltrexone – work.
The stigma surrounding drug use and addiction plays a role, too. Still other issues include federal and state laws that restrict the availability of the medications.
"It's more of an implementation problem than a basic science problem," Clark said, "because we know what works."
Medications do not 'substitute one drug for another'
In someone with opioid use disorder, using the drugs is often not a pleasurable experience, but rather a practice that has become a necessary fact of life. Being without the drugs leads to painful symptoms that can include severe nausea, shaking, diarrhoea, and depression.
The need to use is simultaneously a physical and emotional compulsion – the lines between those kinds of pain are blurred.
One of the main misconceptions about medication-assisted treatment is that medications simply replace the drugs that hooked users – leading to more highs and fuelling a pattern of repeated use.
But that view is outdated and ill-informed, experts say. Instead, the drugs work by staunching cravings and reducing or preventing withdrawal and relapse.
Buprenorphine and methadone help suppress cravings, while naltrexone blocks the euphoric and sedative effects of opioids so users don't experience a high.
"People ask me all the time, 'well, aren't they just substituting one drug for another?' The answer is no. These are evidence-based treatments and they work," Patrice A. Harris, the former president of the American Medical Association and a board certified psychiatrist, told Business Insider.
Several large studies suggest that as access to MAT rises, drug overdose deaths fall.
A study of heroin overdose deaths in Baltimore between 1995 and 2009 published in the American Journal of Public Health, for example, found a link between the increasing availability of methadone and buprenorphine and a roughly 50 percent decrease in the number of fatal overdoses.
"These treatments are life saving and they work," Sarah Wakeman, the medical director of the substance use disorder initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard, told Business Insider.
From jail to court to rehab, medication-assisted treatment is hard to find
Despite the evidence demonstrating MAT's effectiveness, it is surprisingly difficult to obtain.
One of the hardest-to-access forms of medication for recovery is methadone. In the US, the medication can only be accessed in specialised clinics; because of the way the treatment works, people on MAT must come to a facility to be injected daily.
But those facilities typically have negative reputations because of policies that restrict them to locations considered seedy or run-down.
And patients who come for treatment often have to push past active drug users – a big trigger for someone with substance use disorder – on their way to and from the clinic.