Helping People Come Off Medication—Bad for Business?

Peter Groot, PhD
24
1993

The medical literature is full of promises for the future. Helping patients right now appears to be less attractive.

JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association recently published an opinion article by two influential scientists, Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Victor Dzau of the National Academy of Medicine, who make a case for so-called ‘medication-based treatment‘ of opioid use disorder. Medication based treatment involves the use of methadone, buprenorphine, or extended-release naltrexone to “alleviate withdrawal symptoms, reduce opioid cravings, and decrease the response to future drug use” caused by the use of opioid pain killers.

Prescribing drugs to solve problems caused by other drugs

What Lesnher and Dzau suggest is to use prescribed drugs to solve problems caused by other prescribed drugs. I agree that in certain instances this can be helpful or may even be necessary to help patients. But I struggle to understand the omission of a solution which, to me at least, seems better for the patient in the long-term; namely helping them to safely and gradually taper the opioid-based painkiller that they have become dependent on.

This omission obscures a major factor in the opioid crisis, which has been deliberately exploited by pharmaceutical companies. The drugs are easy to obtain, to prescribe and to take but very difficult, sometimes near-impossible, to stop taking.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized this problem. On April 9, the Agency issued the following safety announcement:

FDA identifies harm reported from sudden discontinuation of opioid pain medicines and requires label changes to guide prescribers on gradual, individualized tapering‘.

I fully support this statement, but I also see a large practical problem. How are doctors supposed to follow the regulator’s guidance? Using only standard medication this cautious approach is simply not possible. Far too many patients who tried to do this have already suffered needlessly. This must stop. I will not elaborate on their stories, but they can be easily found on Mad in America and on peer-support websites such as Surviving Antidepressants, but rarely in the scientific medical literature.

To follow the FDA advice, doctors must be able to prescribe personalized tapering schedules allowing patients to taper gradually over longer periods of time in very small steps. In the Netherlands, this has been made practically possible by the development of so-called tapering strips. As a comment on Leshner and Dzau, I considered this to be relevant information for the readers of JAMA. Therefore, together with Jim van Os, we submitted the following letter to the Editor.

Letter to the editor of JAMA: Tapering medication enables compliance with new FDA opioid withdrawal guidance

The toll of opioid abuse on the US population, with an estimated 130 people dying each day from opioid overdoses, is saddening.1 To help reduce the impact of the current epidemic Leshner and Dzau argue for the use of medication-based treatment for the treatment of substance use disorder. Although we agree that in some cases a medication-based approach may be called for and helpful, we wonder if, by solving the problem of overprescribing of one drug by prescribing other drugs, we are not merely substituting one substance dependence problem for another.

On April 9 the FDA announced that it will require label changes to guide prescribers on gradual, individualized tapering of opioid pain medicines because (forced) discontinuation of opioids can result in uncontrolled pain, serious withdrawal symptoms, psychological distress and suicide.2

Health care professionals, the FDA warns, should not abruptly discontinue opioids in a patient who is physically dependent. Because no standard opioid tapering schedule exists that is suitable for all patients, they should create a patient-specific plan to gradually taper the dose of the opioid and ensure ongoing monitoring and support, to avoid serious withdrawal symptoms, worsening of the patient’s pain, or psychological distress.

The important question is: can we make gradual tapering practically possible in such a way that this good advice, which is equally fitting for other types of drugs where withdrawal is known to occur, can be followed?

We have addressed this issue specifically by developing so-called tapering strips which allow a doctor to prescribe personalized gradual tapering schedules using a shared decision-making approach.3 The results of the first observational study of the use of tapering strips show how successful such an approach can be.4 Of 895 patients who wished to discontinue an antidepressant 636 (71%) succeeded in tapering completely, many of which had previously failed one or multiple times to withdraw using other methods.

Initially, tapering strips were developed only for tapering paroxetine and venlafaxine, but after receiving requests from patients as well as doctors to also make them available for other types of medication, they have also been developed for other antidepressants, antipsychotics, sedatives, anti-epileptics, centrally working analgesics like methadone, oxycodone and tramadol and some other medications. The first experiences with the use of tapering medication 5 suggest that the use of tapering strips for opioids like oxycodone could be a valuable first treatment option for patients wishing to discontinue opioid medication.

JAMA Rejection

‘Unfortunately, because of the many submissions we receive and our space limitations in the Letters section, we are unable to publish your letter in JAMA.    . . . .   we determined your letter did not receive a high enough priority rating for publication’

JAMA did not want to publish our letter, because it did not earn a high enough priority rating. I was surprised and disappointed and wanted to know which criteria were used to come to this conclusion. So I wrote the following email to the editor.

Email to the editor of JAMA

You write that our letter does not have a high enough priority rating. Why this is so is not explained, so I can only guess. Does this mean that JAMA:

  1. Does not find it a high priority problem that in the US each day 130 patients die of an opioid drug overdose and a much higher number suffers badly trying to come off these drugs safely (and often in vain)?
  2. Does not find it a high priority to inform readers about the existence of a novel tool that can help to do something about these problems?
  3. Does not find it a problem if an unknown number of patients in the near future will have to suffer needlessly because they could have been helped better if their doctors would have been informed by JAMA? JAMA is an important and influential platform which reaches a large audience. Every doctor promises to do no harm. Does this pledge not also apply to JAMA?

In view of these questions, I kindly ask you to reconsider your decision. If, after reconsidering, the editorial board still finds that our letter does not have a high enough priority rating, I would very much appreciate it if you would be so kind to explain to us what the reasons are to come to this conclusion.

Within a few days, I received the following answer:

I am sorry that you were not happy with our decision. We have published many articles about the opioid epidemic, so it is not accurate that we don’t find the topic a high priority. However, every journal has different priorities when it comes to selecting letters to the editor to publish. We consider letters to be a form of postpublication peer review. Hence, we look for letters that comment directly on an issue raised in a Viewpoint or research study. For JAMA, the letters column is not a venue to inform readers about new scientific discoveries, which we consider the province of research articles’

Only letters ‘that comment directly on an issue raised in JAMA

JAMA, seemingly, only wants letters which ‘comment directly on an issue raised in a viewpoint or research article’. In my view, this is precisely what we had done. Given the urgency and severity of the problem — every day 130 people dying of an opioid overdose in the US alone! — I fail to understand how our contribution could not be considered directly related to the issue raised in the JAMA article by Leshner and Dzau.

I concluded that JAMA simply did not want to publish our contribution and that it would be a waste of time to write to the editor again. Instead, I decided to write this blog, to raise the following question:

“Why is an influential medical journal not interested in a practical solution which is proven to help patients and is available right now?”

In the future, but not right now

Over the years, after reading thousands of scientific articles about psychiatric disorders and the use of psychiatric medications, it has become very clear to me that medical journals want to publish mostly about drugs or interventions which are expected to work better than the existing ones, to have less adverse effects and which should ultimately lead to better treatments and better guidelines. In the future.

Perhaps I have become a bit cynical, but what I see happening over and over again is this:

Promises made in medical journals are mostly about helping patients in the future and rarely about helping them right now.

The general message, especially in editorials, invited comments and opinion articles, is that ‘this new study shows great promise‘, that ‘we are almost there‘, and, perhaps most importantly, that ‘we need further research‘. My interpretation is: ‘give us the money and we will be happy to carry this out‘. With the implied promise that, once this new research has been done, we will get a better world.

But do we get a better world? In many cases I do not see this happening. What I see is that after a number of years the cycle simply repeats itself, leading to new editorials, invited comments and opinion articles stating that ‘this new study shows great promise‘, that ‘we are almost there‘ and that ‘we need further research‘. And so on, and so forth. Work in progress that will never be finished and that keeps generating a steady income for researchers. Without helping patients and doctors much in daily clinical practice.

How much progress have we really made in improving pharmacotherapy for mental health problems?

What I observe is that we have increasingly and purposefully made it easier to start patients on psychiatric drugs, with little research or clinical effort put into helping patients to come off the drugs or to attempt to understand or reduce withdrawal symptoms.

And we are not talking about new drugs here. We are talking about drugs that were discovered decades ago (more than 70 years in the case of lithium and chlorpromazine). Many of these drugs are still in use today and most have become extremely cheap because they are all out of patent. So cheap that the cheapest solution to ‘help’ patients almost invariably is to prescribe more drugs, rather than to try something else or to help them come off medication.

Pharmaceutical companies who brought these drugs to market know about withdrawal problems, but have done nothing, and are still doing nothing, to develop practical solutions to prevent them. Sadly, they still do not have the obligation to do this when they bring a new drug on the market.

And what has psychiatry done thus far to find a solution for withdrawal problem? What I see is that we had to wait until 2019 before the UK Royal College of Psychiatrists even admitted that withdrawal symptoms could be more severe and longer lasting than the official guidelines stated. Let alone do something about them. That is something that they promise they will do in the future.

This brings me back to my question. Why are influential medical journals such as JAMA only interested in solutions that will lead to better treatments and guidelines in the future? And not in a practical solution like tapering medication which is available and can and does help patients right now?

Is this because helping patients to come off medication safely is bad for business?

Show 5 footnotes

  1. Leshner AI, Dzau VJ. Medication-Based Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder. JAMA. 2019;321(21):2071-2072. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2732941
  2. FDA drug safety announcement: FDA identifies harm reported from sudden discontinuation of opioid pain medicines and requires label changes to guide prescribers on gradual, individualized tapering. April 9, 2019. fda.gov/drugs/drug-safety-and-availability/fda-identifies-harm-reported-sudden-discontinuation-opioid-pain-medicines-and-requires-label-changes
  3. Groot PC. Tapering strips for paroxetine and venlafaxine. Tijdschrift voor Psychiatrie. 2013;55(10):789-794 (article in Dutch, English version available at https://www.taperingstrip.nl/wp-content/uploads/Groot_2013_Taperingstrips_paroxetine_venlafaxine.pdf
  4. Groot PC, van Os J. Antidepressant tapering strips to help people come off medication more safely. Psychosis 2018;10(2):142-145. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17522439.2018.1469163
  5. taperingstrip.org (a not-for-profit website of the User Research Center of Maastricht/Utrecht University Medical Center, the Netherlands)

24 COMMENTS

  1. Well said. There’s action there and little inertia. You may get more readers here than at JAMA. I’m always amazed at the sometimes limited number of readers in certain fields, such as orphan diseases, world-wide. Even if the scientific article is spot-on. In regards to opioids, I’m still marking China’s engagement to join the war against fentanyl. Now, how ’bout tapering? OR, not prescribing opioids for general ailments. Even something as simple as aspirin, yet as big as the company making it, recently saw the publication of new recommendations so that the “daily aspirin” be limited to patients who already experienced cardiovascular disease. That was about time. In the same light, I maintain hope for solving the opioid crisis. Articles such as yours are a pleasure to read: they are informative, thought provoking and they expose the effort in the counter-current, if i may say so. It’s a great solution.

    • The US company making aspirin can easily absorb any possible losses because of the amount and variety of its products. As far as I know, almost all the country’s bulk aspirin comes from one factory in one place. Then it’s sold to drug companies and chain pharmacies, which tablet the bulk aspirin into their company brands. The buyers are the ones that set the price of their tablets.

  2. People can solve this issue themselves. Psychiatry should not intervene in such highly personal matters.
    *UK Royal College of Psychiatrists even admitted that withdrawal symptoms could be more severe and longer lasting than the official guidelines*. That’s funny, maybe psychiatrists will soon confirm that substitution drugs should be low toxic (as Phenibut for example) and that you should not forget to use hepatoprotectors. Or that the sun shines during the day and the moon at night.

    • Phenibut is banned in Australia.

      It used to be available at “Muscle shops” – along with other aminos and protein powders.

      So some kids went in, got a bottle, and between the 4-6 of them, took the whole bottle.

      Ended up in hospital. It was a perfect storm for banishing a useful supplement. “protect our kids!!!!”

  3. No surprise those in power are in no hurry to promote drug discontinuation, as there’s no money in not selling drugs, but plenty in supplying them to feed addicts’ appetites. After all, Health Care isn’t about your health, but the financial health of manufacturers and corporate providers.

    • “Health Care isn’t about your health, but the financial health of manufacturers and corporate providers,” and too many doctors. A sad truth, bc.

      “Why are influential medical journals such as JAMA only interested in solutions that will lead to better treatments and guidelines in the future? And not in a practical solution like tapering medication which is available and can and does help patients right now?

      “Is this because helping patients to come off medication safely is bad for business?” You’ve got a hammer that hit the right nail, Peter. Thank you for developing and speaking out about viable drug withdrawal solutions that can actually help people today.

    • Interesting that this article does not mention the other things they frequently give to addicts: SSRI’s and SNRI’s and neuroleptics – “to reduce cravings,” “to ease transition into ‘normal life'” etc. etc.

      This is done for alcoholics, too. Then, a decade or more later, when the original addiction is “under control,” they realise that quitting alcohol (or opiates) was easy compared to the “safe” drugs that they were given instead.

      • Well, you wouldn’t want them to put their alcoholics on niacin, would you? This was why the AA medical bureaucrats decided that Bill Wilson was senile, because he advocated it after it removed a depression that bothered him for years and also persuaded a few dozen of his AA buddies to try it, with 2/3 of them reporting positive results. He was also pals of renegade shrinks like Hoffer (“Doctor Niacin”) and Humphry Osmond (creator of the word “psychedelic”- Bill had had LSD in the early 1960’s and became interested in the psychedelic therapy of those days, of which both were pioneers.

  4. Hello Peter,
    I was struck by your response to JAMA’s rejection of your letter, and was not surprised to see it was not well-received. Instead of interpreting this sentence: “we determined your letter did not receive a high enough priority rating for publication” in terms of JAMA’s values and whatnot, why did you not simply ask them how they determine a priority rating? What are the criteria? What is included in consideration of this rating? After you get clarification of “the rules,” you can hold them to their own standards. But your reply, instead, reads like an indictment. It comes across as juvenile and reactionary, and I think you can do better. It is also the way that psychiatrists all too often frame their interactions with patients: instead of asking directly, they interpret in a way that reinforces their prejudices and biases.

    This is constructive criticism I am offering you, and I hope you receive it that way, and decide to change your approach.

  5. Getting people off of drugs is important.

    I don’t think other drugs should be given, at least not in most cases, maybe never.

    Some people will prescribe alcohol and street drugs for themselves, and that is bad enough.

    The proper response to Psychiatry is simply FU. We should not be promoting things which are similar, Psychotherapy, Recovery, or Life Coaching to take its place.

  6. JAMA is engaging in the same systemic biases, corruption and abuse of power in psychiatry. They pretend to care about the patient’s well-being but it’s obviously a ruse. As with psychiatry they make up lame excuses for their decisions and refuse to provide further clarification or explanation. The attitude of JAMA is political and self-serving, more about power, ego and money than saving lives. Shame on JAMA!
    Thank you for your integrity and efforts in speaking out to save lives Dr. Groot.

  7. Two doctors in JAMA write that “methadone maintenance”, the standard treatment for heroin addiction, should be the future treatment for people on physician prescribed opioids. Really!? Talk about an iatrogenic mess. First you’ve got doctors pushing the kind of drugs that garnered street pushers heavy sentences. Next, you’ve got the same answer applied for the patients put on opioids that you had for junkies hooked on heroin. Is there no law in this country? Drugs are not medicines, and one drug is not the answer to another drug. Somebody should be busting these guys! Any solution, such as “tapering strips”, and a more total solution at that, would be an improvement.

    • As I see it – “tapering strips” are not drastic enough for the DEA requirements that – whoever is on opiates – be limited to equivelency 50 mg ME (morphine equivalent).

      It doesn’t matter if they were on 3x or 10x that – the DEA is arresting doctors and making it challenging for pain patients to get their condition managed.

      I know several patients with chronic pain conditions who have had their doses cut to 1/10th of their former dose, overnight, because of these DEA requirements – or – the doctors fear of them.

      So – tapering strips – are too gradual, and this means that – for a time, the doctor will be prescribing OVER that DEA minimum ME dose, in order to attempt to taper gradually and wisely.

      Perhaps, from a business perspective, it’s better to throw them in crisis and get them addicted to neuroleptics, instead (Abilify being the #1 selling drug in the USA right now).

      • The DEA seldom arrests doctors before the mortality rate becomes drastic, that is to say, better more arrests than fewer. I wouldn’t use “pain management” as a cover, in that regard, it has got its shortcoming

        Neuroleptics were a folly to begin with, but if the authorities can peddle them as “pain relief”, they probably will This is why education is so important in countering disinformation. Just because some people are fools, that’s even more reason for the rest of us not to compliantly follow.

        • That’s not necessarily true.

          There are numerous cases of doctors – without high mortality rates – but who are writing the prescriptions in question, where the DEA comes in.

          It may not amount to arrest, but it is very discouraging to a practicing physician to have his practice closed while the DEA goes through his records with a fine tooth comb.

          He may be exonerated at the end of the DEA process – and this is happening a lot. Doctors are terrified of this! And as a result, they are avoiding prescribing the drugs in question.

          The threat of DEA audit alone (not just the arrests) is changing the prescribing practices of doctors in general.

          I had a friend in a car accident last week. Cracked his spine. They sent him home with Lyrica.