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Opioid treatment meds could be used more effectively in Washington, researchers say

UW Medicine pharmacist Meredith Holmes with addiction treatment drug buprenorphine.
UW Medicine
UW Medicine pharmacist Meredith Holmes with addiction treatment drug buprenorphine.

University of Washington School of Medicine research shows a drug to treat opioid addiction isn’t being used as effectively as it could be. 


Caleb Banta-Green, addictions specialist at the school and author of the study, looked at around 25,000 buprenorphine prescriptions in Washington between 2014 and 2017. He found that, on average, patients only stayed on the medication for 84 days. But he said long-term use of the addiction treatment medication, longer than six months, is necessary for patients to stay in recovery. The records on buprenorphine use were available because Washington state requires all controled substance prescriptions to be tracked. Banta-Green said what his research doesn’t show is why people aren’t staying on the drug.


But he suspects it has something to do with people’s perceptions of addiction and treatment. Too often, he said, addiction is seen as a “moral failure” rather than as a health condition. He said he works with hundreds of providers around the state who prescribe buprenorphine, and some doctors mistakenly believe people need to be weaned off it as quickly as possible.


“Or they might also have a model that says, ‘Well, I’ll let you be on this medication, but basically you have to be perfect and if you slip up, you’re off,’" he said.


But, he said, slipping up is a part of the recovery process and people usually have to try multiple times before they stay in recovery. Banta-Green said it’s also important for patients, family, peer support groups and employers to recognize that when someone is on buprenorphine, they are in recovery.


“Everybody needs to understand that these medications support recovery, they don’t perpetuate addiction,” he said, emphasizing that he does not take any funds from the drug maker.


One of the most worrisome results of the research is that a high number of young people aren’t sticking with the opioid addiction treatment. Banta-Green says, with deadly fentanyl circulating, opioid deaths in the 18 to 29 age group in the state have skyrocketed this past year.


The University of Washington Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute, with funding from Washington Health Care Authority, has several informational websites with resources on addiction and prevention, including and

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.