What is the most common mistake made when treating
withdrawal in a correctional facility?
Consider these two patients:
A jail patient booked yesterday is referred to
medical because of a history of drinking.
He has a mild hand tremor and “the look” of a heavy drinker. But he says
he feels fine and has no complaints. His blood pressure is 158/96 and his heart
rate is 94.
A newly booked jail patient says that she is
going to go through heroin withdrawal. She
is nauseated but still eating and has no gooseflesh or rhinorrhea. Her heart rate mildly elevated.
In many jails, neither of these patients would be started on treatment for withdrawal at their first visit to medical. But this would be a mistake! Both patients should be started on treatment for withdrawal immediately.
The most common mistake made when treating withdrawal in a jail is not to treat the withdrawal at all!
Both of these patients have the potential to slide downhill rapidly. And in both cases, the potential benefits of starting treatment far, far outweigh any potential liability.
I am seeing a 52-year-old male in my jail medical clinic who
was booked yesterday on a felony DUI charge.
He says he drinks “a lot of beer” but denies having a drinking problem. He is cranky and not really cooperative. He does not want to be here. However, the deputies tell me that he did not
sleep much last night and did not eat breakfast. I note that he has a mild hand tremor and a
heart rate of 108. According to the
clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol–revised version (the most
common tool used in the United States to assess the severity of alcohol
withdrawal since 1989) my patient needs no treatment for alcohol withdrawal. But this is wrong! In actuality, my patient is experiencing
moderate withdrawal and should be treated immediately and aggressively.
Using CIWA is like
using a wrench to pound in a nail. It
can be done, but it is not really efficient or accurate. A different tool (a hammer) could drive the nail
much more quickly and effectively. CIWA is simply not the right tool to assess
alcohol withdrawal. We should be using
Patients are dying in correctional facilities from
benzodiazepine withdrawal! This is not
just a theoretical observation; this really is happening. This fact bothers me since
benzo withdrawal deaths are preventable.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal is easy to treat! It is certainly easier to treat benzo
withdrawal than the other two potentially deadly withdrawal states, alcohol and
opioids. By far, the most common cause of
benzodiazepine deaths is, of course, not treating it!
So, is your facility at risk to have a patient die of
benzodiazepine withdrawal? To find out, compare
your policies to the following Rules for the Treatment of Benzodiazepine Withdrawal.
My last post about MAT in jails generated a lot of excellent responses–so many, in fact, that I realized that my discussion of MAT in jails was incomplete. I would like to enlarge the discussion about the proper role of MAT in jails by responding to these comments. Before I do, I want to make sure that we are all looking at the issue from the same perspective. Please consider how MAT should be used in three different jails.
I recently ran across this news article on NPR (found here) about the problem of treating the large number of opioid addicted patients who are coming to our jails. There is a growing movement that all opioid addicted patients should be offered Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) while in jail–meaning one or more of three drugs: methadone, Suboxone or Vivitrol. The article does a good job in pointing out that this is a complicated problem. Having been on the front lines of this problem for many years in my own jails (and so having that great teacher–experience), I would like today to present my own thoughts on using MAT in jails. (MAT in prisons is a separate subject that I will address later).
One thing I always tell practitioners who are beginning a jail medical practice: you’re going to see a lot of withdrawal cases — study up! In particular, since the opioid epidemic hit, the number of patients I’ve seen in my jails withdrawing from heroin and other opioids of all stripes has skyrocketed. I’ve seen enough patients withdrawing from opioids that I think I am reasonably knowledgeable on the topic. Because of this, I was quite surprised when I ran across this sentence in a recent edition of The Medical Letter:
The problem is that although this sentence seems quite self-assured, it is flat out wrong. In fact, it is not just wrong; it is also dangerous. People do die from opioid withdrawal. I know of several such cases from my work with jails. Opioid withdrawal needs to be recognized as a potentially life-threatening condition, just like alcohol withdrawal and benzodiazepine withdrawal.Continue reading →
I had a lot to learn when I began practicing medicine in county jails. One of the most important of those lessons was how properly to assess and manage alcohol withdrawal. In my previous life as an ER physician, I had seen a few alcohol withdrawal patients and even one or two cases of DTs. I thought I knew what I was doing. Wrong-o! I was first unprepared for the sheer number of alcohol withdrawal patients I would see as a correctional physician. Alcohol withdrawal in jails is simply very common.
But I was also unprepared because much of what I had been taught about alcohol withdrawal was inaccurate or misleading. Nothing teaches like experience! After many years of treating a lot of alcohol withdrawal, I have gained some insights.Continue reading →
In my last JailMedicine post, I wrote that clonidine is an excellent drug for the treatment of opioid withdrawal. In response, several people have asked about methadone and Suboxone. Why not use one of those drugs instead of clonidine?
The short answer is that both methadone and Suboxone are excellent drugs for the treatment of withdrawal. However, both are much more complicated to use in jails due to DEA legal requirements and a much larger potential for diversion and abuse. If you are using Suboxone or methadone, great! I believe that clonidine is a better choice for most jails. Those interested in using methadone or Suboxone need to be fully aware of the DEA laws surrounding their use. Before you use one of these drugs, you must make sure that you are following the law. I know of two physicians in my hometown who were disciplined by the DEA for prescribing narcotics to treat addiction without registering. The DEA are not kidders!
By the way, Jail practitioners should also be aware that Tramadol has been used successfully to treat withdrawal, as well.Continue reading →
Imagine this: You’re practicing medicine and a patient comes to you with an illness. You make the diagnosis and then say to the patient, “I can see that you are very sick. And there is a highly effective treatment for your condition that would make you feel a lot better. It’s simple and it isn’t even expensive. But, you know what? I’m not going to give it to you! You’re not sick enough. Come back tomorrow. If you’re sicker tomorrow—well, if you’re sick enough—I will treat you then. But not right now.”
Crazy, right? We’d never do such a thing.
But . . . the problem is, we frequently do that exact thing with our heroin withdrawal patients. I’m not singling out correctional medicine practitioners here. I think that, in general, heroin withdrawal is treated better in correctional settings than it is in the community. Nevertheless, it is a fact that heroin withdrawal is often not properly treated in jails and prisons. I have seen it.
I believe that there are four main reasons that some facilities do not appropriately treat heroin (and other opioid) withdrawal.Continue reading →
We correctional practitioners get to see a wide range of medical practice as we review the medical histories of inmates arriving at our facilities. I myself have seen many prescribing practices that make me scratch my head. One example I have run into repeatedly is the practice at many jails of using hydroxyzine to treat alcohol withdrawal. It turns out that many jails do this. I am not talking about hydroxyzine as an adjunct or an add-on to the primary agent. I am talking about hydroxyzine being used as the primary treatment agent itself.
In my opinion, this is a mistake, and should be stopped.
Now I admit that there is room for dissention in medicine. Not all practitioners practice in the same way and there are many, many areas of medicine where there is no right answer. And it is true that hydroxyzine was used in the 1960’s to treat alcohol withdrawal. However, since then, medicine has discovered superior agents to treat this condition: the benzodiazepines. Today, hydroxyzine is the wrong agent for alcohol withdrawal. If your facility uses hydroxyzine as the primary treatment for alcohol withdrawal, you should change your protocol. There is no legitimate basis for this practice.Continue reading →