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Various disparities exist in accessibility of treatment for opioid addiction, Rutgers researchers find

Approximately 1 in 4 people who could benefit from opioid use disorder treatment received medication for their opioid addiction, Rutgers researcher says. – Photo by Myriam Zilles / Unsplash

Rutgers recently conducted a study that found that medication for opioid use disorder was lowest among adolescents and adults ages 50 or older, and there are various disparities among those who have access to treatment, according to a press release.

Hillary Samples, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health and senior author of the study, said the study found that approximately 1 in 4 people who could benefit from opioid use disorder treatment received medication for their opioid addiction.

“We also found that the treatment gap is even wider for some important groups,” Samples said. “The first was people with severe enough symptoms to qualify for a clinical diagnosis of opioid use disorder, where about 1 in 6 reported receiving medication.”

The study used national survey data to study medication use among people who could potentially benefit from opioid addiction treatment, she said. 

Only 27.8 percent of people needing treatment for opioid use disorder received it in the past year, according to the study. No adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 years received treatment and only 13.2 percent of adults ages 50 years and older reported getting treatment for opioid use disorder.

Samples also said the data showed that most adults did not receive any drug treatment at all, citing potential racial and ethnic disparities in an individual’s ability to access medication. 

“While nearly 1 in 3 white respondents reported receiving medication, only about 1 in 5 Black respondents and less than 1 in 5 respondents received medication,” she said.

Older adults were more likely than young adults to receive treatment, with most not receiving any treatment, Samples said. 

Additionally, the study found that misconceptions regarding substance use in older aged individuals, along with lower screening and assessment rates, may be contributors to the observed low opioid use disorder treatment rates.

Gaps in access could be worsened by the fact that many specialty facilities that offer treatment programs to adolescents are often less likely to provide medication specifically for opioid use disorder than the facilities that serve adults, according to the study.

Samples said the most important groups with low medication use were the overall population who could potentially benefit from treatment, the subgroup who qualified for an opioid use disorder diagnosis and minoritized racial and ethnic groups. 

She said the national data reveals the scope of the problem and highlights the importance of policies to expand the use of and access to medication for opioid addiction, she said.

A statistical analysis was conducted in addition to the study to calculate descriptive statistics for the past year's sample of people who needed treatment for opioid use disorder. Survey weights were used to derive estimates that were nationally representative. 

The study found an association between Medicaid and medication for opioid use disorder. The researchers then determined that policies increasing Medicaid coverage could be a key strategy to enable medication for opioid use disorder, according to the study. 

Samples also said it is crucial for the findings of this study to be publicized due to the fact that many individuals die from opioid use disorder, despite it being a treatable condition. While medication is very effective at reducing overdose risk, the rates of treatment usage are still low, she said. 

“Future research is needed to identify specific barriers to medication treatment,” she said. “While we didn't have information in this study about why people did or didn't receive medication, this evidence could inform efforts to address barriers to care.”

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