Quality & Science

Patients with Addiction Need Treatment - Not Stigma

by AMA Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse | December 15, 2015

Junkie. Stoner. Crackhead. We’ve all heard the terms, used to describe those individuals who struggle with drug addiction. These ​words are dismissive and disdainful; they reflect a moral judgment that is a relic of a bygone era when our understanding of addiction was limited, when many thought that addiction was some sort of moral failing and should be a source of shame. We need to change the national discussion. Put simply, individuals with substance use disorders are our patients who need treatment.

Scientific progress has helped us understand that addiction – also referred to as substance use disorder – is a chronic disease of the brain. It is a disease that can be treated – and treated successfully. No one chooses to develop this disease. Instead, a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental stimulus – analogous to other chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension – can result in physical changes to the brain’s circuitry, which lead to tolerance, cravings, and the characteristic compulsive and destructive behaviors of addiction that are such a large public health burden for our nation.

Consider that every day, 44 Americans die as a result of prescription opioid overdose, and the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths has nearly quadrupled since 2002. In addition to these tragic figures, the nation is seeing an increase in opioid-related pediatric exposures and poisonings. There has been a distressing rise in neonatal abstinence syndrome as a result of women being exposed to opioids during pregnancy. Misuse by older adults also has become an increasing concern. The rate of opioid-related hospital admissions has increased significantly over the last two decades across all age cohorts. Because of higher rates of​ addiction in the current “baby boomer” cohort, illicit and nonmedical drug use among older adults is expected to increase in the future. The bottom line is that physicians must lead the nation in changing the tide of this epidemic.

ASAM and the AMA Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse want to ensure that America’s physicians, patients and policymakers take action in three ways:

First, we must change the conversation about what it means to ​have addiction, and we also must increase access to evidence-based treatments. This means putting an end to stigma, increasing access to medication that can treat opioid use disorder, and supporting the expanded use of naloxone – a life-saving medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid-related overdose. People with addiction deserve to be treated like any other patient with a medical disease, and physicians are helping the nation understand how to do this. That is one reason the Task Force encourages increased education and training for MAT.

Second, we encourage physicians, dentists and other prescribers of controlled substances to register for and use prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP) – as one tool to identify when a patient may need counseling and treatment for a substance use disorder. The trend among policymakers has been to use PDMPs to identify “doctor shoppers.” This, by itself, is important, but the real work is to understand why a patient is seeking medication from multiple prescribers or dispensers – and to offer a pathway for treatment and recovery. The information in PDMPs can play a helpful role in identifying patients in need of help.

Third, consider that we must do a better job with prevention. This includes intervening early with teens who initiate alcohol and/or marijuana as well as efforts to encourage safe storage and disposal. Unused medications increase the risk of nonmedical use by adolescents who live in the home or by their friends. Unused medication also can be ingested by young children who are curious about what is inside the pill container. Implementing campaigns to educate the public on the importance of storing opioid medications locked and out of the reach of children, and properly disposing opioid medications following the end of use, can encourage these safe practices.

And this also includes recognizing that we must actively screen for and treat co-morbid psychiatric disorders in all our patients to ensure that they continue to receive the highest level of care since patients with psychiatric conditions may have even greater risk than the general population to misuse opioids. Furthermore, our patients would benefit from more active screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment (SBIRT).

There are additional issues that we must address. Pregnancy should not limit a woman’s access to opioid medications for adequate pain relief. Pregnant women should not be coerced to withdrawal from opioid treatment. And punitive measures taken toward pregnant women, such as criminal prosecution and incarceration, should be eliminated. These activities have no proven benefits and, in fact, deter pregnant women who use opioids from seeking prenatal care, leading to poor child health outcomes. The threat of punitive measures also limits the disclosure by pregnant women of critical information about their drug use to their physician. A pregnant woman should have the same freedom as others to openly discuss options with her physician, choose a course of treatment, and be monitored/supported by her physician.

We also need to guard against limiting MAT services. For example, many states have enacted limits on MAT for patients in Medicaid programs, who are incarcerated, or who have “failed” a prior treatment program. Just as an evidence-based treatment policy would not discriminate against a diabetes patient for being low-income, having been arrested, or not adhering with his or her diabetes treatment program, MAT’s proven success should not be limited by these approaches either.

As ​clinicians, we see the harsh reality faced by our patients with a substance use disorder. Stigmatizing patients helps no one. Our goal is to treat our patients and help them live as fully functional members of society. There are people in recovery at every level of government, the private sector and throughout our towns and communities. That is because treatment works.

For more resources:

Reducing the stigma of substance abuse disorder

Resources on ​the use of medication in the treatment of addiction ​

Issues specific to women and children

Safe storage and disposal


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  1. Don Hall Aug 14, 2019 - 09:39 PM

    Any comments or ideas around reducing stigma and improving treatment, please e-mail me at


    I have worked as a substance use counselor for over 30 years, and with MAT for over 25. There is a lot of work to do.

    Don Hall LCDC




  2. C. K. Mar 04, 2019 - 07:08 PM
    How about misfit and no good. This is how I feel about all illicit drug users no mater if they abuse prescription, or illicit substances. No one is forced to take these drugs in the first place, so addiction is self-induced, Then they expect society to care for them. They are ruining the ability for decent persons to obtain needed drugs without being shammed by having to undergo drug screening by local physicians. I had to stop a good medicine because it has been a 'controlled substance' for many years, however, I was trusted to have it available. Now I would have to be treated like a criminal to have the medication, so I quit using it, no problem after a few sleepless months getting off it, So much for addiction being a disease that affects everyone!
  3. Carrie Dec 08, 2018 - 11:09 PM

    I work at an OBOT in Tigard Oregon which is a satelite office of the biggest and oldest methadone dispensary and has evolved to include a buprenorphinedaily dosing program in the afternoons. There are a total of four outpatient treatment centers branching from the main daily dosing headquarters. The outpatient sites (OBOT’s) are not daily dosing models and all sites serve the Medicaid population. 

    I am a crucial part of the MAT team as I am the MAT primary counselor. I have been working at this agency for one year and I bring 4-1/2 years experience of MAT although I was in a diffetent role previously. I had worked alongside compassionate and professional addictionologists and psychiatrists as their utilization review coordinator in an acute care setting of detoxification, stabilization, and then transition to community providers for maintenance.

    I am currentlly seeking employment elsewhere and have given my current employer 30 days notice due to ethical conflicts and moral disconnects. I have watched medical providers stigmatize and judge 95% of tbe MAT patients served at this agency. I have been forced to watch patients get unfairly discharged from buprenorphine treatment based on profiling, biases, judgements, ego, and stiigmas. It is easy to say the vision and mission statement supportcompassionate care and ending stigmas, but the hard truth is what happens behind the walls of each treatment facility. What is said behind closed doorsamongst a MAT team should support the patients recovery not stigmatize and plot their demise. I have cried after being told my client wont get a bridge script or even a 21 day taper script due to rescheduling their medical appointment twice 2 months  after having a weekend relapse and homsing self accountable. The client called me and was begging forhelp as he went into withdrawal from buprenoephine. I asked the doctor that kicked him out and was tiold no. The client called me again two weeks later asking if he can come back and was pleading for help, saying everyone is overdosing and he doesnt want to die. Again i asked and was told “We wrote a prescription for Narcan and that should keep himsafe”. That was the day ny heart broke and I could not fully be a part of that MAT team. 

    There have continued to be iinjustices toward the MAT patients and it should be illegal for medical providers to suppress MAT patients, to abandon MAT patients, and to stigmatize MAT patients. The mexication is amazing and there is such a need for good MAT programs but if left in the wrong hands without firm regulations, including drop-in audits with walk throughs and patient questions and/or anonymous surveys, the outcomes are: induced trauma upon a vulnerable population. This makes the MAT part of the problem rather tban fhe solution. 

    Please help me advocate for positive MAT change!!

  4. Jennifer Andrews Jan 07, 2016 - 11:46 PM

    There was a TED talk where the best way to help drug addicts is to change their environment. I know that drug use is a real issue, and there is a huge stigma. Methadone maintenance treatment has gone up as well as other drug uses as well. Being aware of the issues and supporting those getting help is something we can all do.


  5. Carlton Erickson Jan 02, 2016 - 01:04 PM
    In Chapter 1 of my 2007 book, The Science of Addiction, I argued that stigmatizing terminology about addiction is a major problem in advancing treatment of our patients.  Eight years later we are still using outmoded terminology that is confusing, disrespectful, and non-science based.   Changing beliefs and attitudes is one thing; behavioral change is another.   Until the “field” gets it, which will probably take considerable time, we need an organization such as ASAM to make proper terminology a priority.  Making it a priority means recognizing that this is a major problem, and that the sooner public opinion and vocabulary are changed, the sooner we can save more lives. Getting rid of words such as “drunks”, “junkies”, and others mentioned in the article is critical.  We also have to stop using the word “addiction” for everything under the sun (the latest are “Oreo addiction”, “Nike addiction”, and “gun addiction”) and use the clinically more accurate diagnostic terminology.  Even better, let’s teach scientists and health professionals to use “compulsive exercise” and “compulsive eating disorder” (instead of “exercise addiction” and “food addiction”, for example).  When everything is called an addiction, it is confusing to the public and policy makers, trivializes the enormous amount of research on substance use disorders, and leads to even greater misunderstanding and stigma.
  6. Rich Saitz Dec 18, 2015 - 04:55 PM

    and this too 


  7. Rich Saitz Dec 18, 2015 - 04:49 PM

    Of course I fully support the idea to reduce stigma. As you suggest in your first sentence terminology is one way to do that--the avoidance of derogatory terms, and the encouragement of clinically accurate diagnostic terms that are respectful. To that end, while I recognize that the DSMIV is not that far behind us, I know that "abuse" in the Task Force name does not refer to the diagnosis of DSMIV abuse. It is a leftover from a time when inaccurate language was ok. We thought--its ok, we know what it means. And of course national and state agencies still have "abuse" in their name. But it is inaccurate and pejorative; time to rid it from the lexicon.

    Let's start with changing the Task Force name in ASAM? (opioid use disorder, or nonmedical use, or misuse--the latter not my favorite but probably acceptable for this specific case).  That would be in line with ASAM's journal and international guidance, and would allow us to lead in reducing stigma by use of appropriate terminology.

    Some references:




  8. Michael E. Martin M.D. Dec 18, 2015 - 03:45 PM
    Amen! Due to the restrictions in the number of patients I am allowed to treat I had to tell a patient on 3 grams of heroin a day to cut down until we can find him a spot for MAT. We gave him Project Dawn Narcan with DVD. He relapsed and OD'd but his girlfriend gave him Narcan  and it prevented a death and/or hospitalization. What other disease do we limit access to medication?? He is now trying to get onto Vivitrol.

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