Study finds Opioid Agonist Therapy lowers mortality risk

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Opioid Agonist Therapy (OAT) can lower the risk of death amongst people with opioid dependence, findings from a global review have shown.

The review was carried out by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW Sydney, University of Bristol and several other global institutions. They found that people with opioid dependence were less likely to experience suicide, cancer, overdose-related, alcohol-related, and cardiovascular-related mortality while receiving OAT.

The research was published in the journal JAMA.

OAT, which is used to treat addiction to opioid drugs, involves taking opioid agonists such as methadone or buprenorphine. These medications work to prevent withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings for opioids.

The study examined the relationship between OAT and mortality across drug type, setting, and participant groups from over 700,000 participants.

The review found that mortality risk was lower for those receiving either buprenorphine or methadone treatment.

Lower risk of death

Lead author, Thomas Santo Jr, PhD candidate at NDARC, said: “People with opioid dependence who receive OAT are not only at lower risk of overdose than those who do not, but also at lower risk of suicide and several other common causes of death.

“This review provides further justification for expanding access to OAT to help lower the risk of mortality among people with opioid dependence.

“Importantly, the benefits of OAT were consistent across region, age, sex, and comorbidity status. The few studies that examined the impact of OAT after release from prison found that time in OAT lowered risk of mortality.”

The review confirmed that there was a greater risk of death in the first month after OAT is stopped. For patients on methadone, there was a greater risk of mortality at the beginning of treatment, which was not seen for patients on buprenorphine.

“The first four weeks that follow treatment cessation are associated with particularly high rates of suicide and overdose-related mortality,” said Mr Santo.

“These findings emphasise the importance of retention in treatment for those with opioid dependence who start treatment on OAT. There is also a need for more detailed investigation and intervention development to minimise mortality risk during induction onto OAT.”

OAT in prisons

Professor Matt Hickman, at the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at University of Bristol, said: “The research evidence is clear – OAT reduces mortality risk, but the population benefits of OAT may not be realised if treatment periods in the community are too short and prisoners with opioid use disorders are not released on OAT after leaving prison. Countries, like the UK, with ongoing public health crises in drug-related deaths need to review both access to OAT and the way it is delivered to ensure the greatest number of deaths are averted.

“A clinical decision support system, stratifying clients’ risk of dropout in real time, may facilitate the identification of those in need of service enhancements to increase engagement and prevent dropout.”


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