New study shows longer medication treatment timelines more effective at preventing opioid overdoses

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AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

This June 2019 file photo shows 5 mg pills of Oxycodone.

MADISON, Wis. — A new study published Thursday and led by researchers with UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health found that the longer patients use medication to treat an opioid disorder, the less likely they are to overdose.

The study analyzed treatment and overdose data between 2016 and 2017 from Wisconsin and 10 other states that rank high for opioid overdose deaths.

By analyzing the outcomes of more than 293,000 Medicaid patients who received drug-based treatment for opioid use disorders, researchers were able to determine that drugs that prevent withdrawal symptoms and psychological cravings — including methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone — were more effective at preventing overdoses the longer a patient used them.

Longer is better, but even relatively short episodes of medication treatment for opioid use disorder – as short as 60 days – are associated with significant reductions in the risk of overdose,’’ Marguerite Burns, an associate professor of population health sciences at the UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health who led the study, said. “We found that protection increases incrementally the longer individuals take medications over a 12-month period.”

According to the study, patients who took one of the drugs for a full 60 days saw their risk of overdose drop by 61% compared to those who stopped prior to 60 days. After the initial 60 days, researchers checked in at two-month intervals and found that a patient’s risk for overdosing dropped another 10% for each additional 60 days they took medication. The study ended after one year of treatment.

“Performance metrics that encourage health systems to increase retention in treatment, rather than to meet one duration threshold, may better serve patients,” Burns said.

The study results were published Thursday in the journal Addiction.