Most Americans don't know that primary care physicians can prescribe addiction treatment

In a recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it was found that many Americans are unaware that primary care physicians can prescribe medications for opioid use disorder. The survey revealed that 61% of respondents were unaware of this, and 13% incorrectly believed that they could not. This lack of awareness is particularly concerning among Black American respondents, suggesting a disparity in information that may further impede access to treatment.

The study also found that 82% of people who had ever misused prescription or illicit opioids expressed comfort in going to their primary care physicians for medications for opioid use disorder. Among those who had not misused opioids, a majority, 74%, reported they would be comfortable referring their loved ones to primary care for these medications.

The findings of the study indicate an important opportunity to increase awareness of these treatments and how to access them, particularly using culturally specific strategies to reach different groups. Decades of research have shown the overwhelming benefit of existing medications for opioid use disorder, such as buprenorphine and methadone.

Recent federal policy changes have removed some barriers to prescribing buprenorphine by primary care physicians, such as specialized training requirements and patient caps. However, there remain barriers to receiving medication for opioid use disorder. A recent study found that, in the year after elimination of the waiver requirement to prescribe buprenorphine, the number of prescribers increased, but the number of persons who received the medication did not.

With approximately 209,000 primary care physicians in the U.S., channeling addiction treatment through primary care could have a significant public health impact. Researchers at Brown University hypothesized that public health factors may impede access to these medications and formulated survey questions on people’s awareness of and comfort around opioid use disorder treatment in primary care.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that most respondents agreed that the office of a primary care physician should be a place where people can receive treatment for an opioid use disorder. The authors noted that future research should explore targeted strategies to enhance public awareness and investigate the impact of increased primary care physicians’ involvement in providing medications for opioid use disorder. Awareness campaigns akin to those for HIV testing and cancer screening – including educational materials in medical settings and proactive screening by primary care physicians – may help address this gap in public knowledge.

The study was supported by NIDA, with additional support from NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The NIH Helping to End Addiction Long-term and NIH HEAL Initiative are registered service marks of the Department of Health and Human Services. If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. To learn how to get support for mental health or substance use conditions, visit FindSupport.gov. If you are ready to locate a treatment facility or provider, you can go directly to FindTreatment.gov or call 800-662-HELP (4357).

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIDA supports most of the world’s research on the health aspects of drug use and addiction. The Institute carries out a large variety of programs to inform policy, improve practice, and advance addiction science. For more information about NIDA and its programs, visit www.nida.nih.gov. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the nation’s medical research agency, including 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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