It would seem that the Opioid crisis is continuing to be front and centre in the news. Just today the President of the United States declared an Opioid Epidemic Emergency. Of course he was speaking primarily about the damage these drugs do on the family unit and those around them, the impact on the unborn child is significant as well. If this sounds familiar it is because I have written about this topic recently and in the past in the posts A Magic Bullet to Reduce Duration of Treatment and Hospital Stays for Newborns With NAS and Mandatory Drug-Testing ni PRegnancy: Lesson learned. I suppose I write about this topic often as at least where I work this is a problem which just won’t go away and takes up a tremendous amount of resources.
What Can a Large Data Set Tell us?
Pediatrix medical group that you may well be familiar with has a lot of data that can be mined from the hospitals in their network. When it comes to buprenorphine there is a lot of data to look at. In this case the question posed by VN Tolia et al in thier paper Antenatal methadone vs buprenorphine exposure and length of hospital stay in infants admitted to the intensive care unit with neonatal abstinence syndrome was whether there is a difference in infants born to mothers who have been exposed to methadone vs burprenorphine. Specifically they chose to use length of stay as the primary outcome in a retrospective review of 3364 infants admitted for management of NAS. Of these infants, 2202 (65%) were exposed to methadone and 1162 (34%) to buprenorphine. Before we get into what the results actually were it is important to highlight what this study will not tell us. By looking only at admissions for NAS we do not know whether the use of buprenorphine in mothers actually reduced admission for NAS so we are only speaking of the babies who were afflicted with NAS.
When looking at the two groups, the median length of stay was 24 days for the methadone group and 21 for the buprenorphine which was found to be significantly different. In the secondary analysis another interesting finding (at least to me) was noted. When looking at the percentage of babies with a length of stay > 30 days the difference was significant at 34% vs 22% for buprenorphine. The authors here did a good job of doing their best to control for factors which could have influenced the results as they did a regression analysis to determine whether other factors such as gestational age, sex, type of treatment provided etc would explain the shortened length of stay and they found that it remained significant controlling for a wide variety of factors.
Is three days worth it?
It would be tempting to look at the 3 day median difference and shrug it off as no big deal. Remember though that we are in an epidemic are we not? What the study does not account for as well are the number of babies who could have been managed in a postpartum ward and also had a shortened length of stay. Let’s look at a city though where about 100 babies are admitted a year with NAS. A three day reduction in length of stay would translate into 300 patient days per year. By simply changing the medication a woman is being treated with in pregnancy from methadone to buprenorphine we could save almost one NICU bed for the whole year. That is nothing to sneeze at! Moreover if the reduction in admission rates are also true another one, two or more beds per year could be spared depending on the effectiveness of the drug.
In the last post that spoke of using buprenorphine to treat NAS in babies I was concerned about the alcohol content of the syrup for administration in babies. Here we are talking about treating women rather than babies so this is not a concern (plus they would not be taking the pediatric suspension). I see little downside to using buprenorphine over methadone so the real question is how do we get the care providers for the mothers to make the switch? I have a feeling that is coming sooner rather than later.