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When Addiction Treatment Fails

What happens when addiction treatment fails? Before answering this question, we should first discuss what it means to succeed or fail in treatment. Failure in addiction treatment may be defined differently by different people.

When addiction treatments are studied by researchers, they often define success by a subject passing urine drug tests over a period of time with no drugs in their system. Is this a good definition of success? How long would a patient have to test clean to be declared a complete success?

It makes sense for a researcher to design a study with somewhat artificial and arbitrary definitions of success and failure. This is necessary to have an objective way to define terms and compare different treatments to each other and to a lack of treatment. In real life, success is not such a black and white concept.

What if a person is clean for a year, has a brief slip and gets back on track with treatment right away? Are they a failure or a success? What if one person relapsed and used drugs for a month and came back to treatment without any negative life consequences? And then another person relapsed for a week and lost their job and family?

As you can see, while it is important to have a way to compare and evaluate treatments, the true definitions of success and failure or not so simple. However, if a person repeatedly tries a particular treatment and repeatedly fails that treatment plan, then it makes sense to consider the possibility that something else must be tried.

For example, if a patient sees a doctor for Suboxone therapy for opioid addiction and that patient relapses on drugs repeatedly, it may be time to consider another option. It is possible that this patient would benefit from a formal inpatient program that offers regular psychiatric evaluation and psychological evaluation and treatment throughout their admission. Or, maybe a patient who cannot get started on Suboxone would do better with Methadone.

The important thing is that we do not give up on our patients. We must be available for them and listen to what they have to say. Then, we can present to them different options for addiction treatment. If they have allowed their loved-ones to be involved in their care, we can also discuss options with them.

We want to prevent relapse whenever possible because of the dangerous nature of opioid use. As long as a patient has returned to see the doctor to resume treatment for addiction, there is still hope for success. We should focus on moving forward and use setbacks as an opportunity to learn what works and what does not.

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