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Mayo Clin Proc. 2012 March; 87(3): 260–267.
PMCID: PMC3538407

Buprenorphine Maintenance Therapy in Opioid-Addicted Health Care Professionals Returning to Clinical Practice: A Hidden Controversy


It remains controversial whether it is safe for recovering health care professionals to return to clinical practice after treatment for drug addiction. One specific component of reentry that remains particularly contentious is the use of pharmacotherapeutics, specifically buprenorphine, as opioid substitution therapy for health care professionals who wish to return to clinical work. Because health care professionals are typically engaged in safety-sensitive work with considerable consequences when errors occur, abstinence-based recovery should be recommended until studies demonstrate that it is safe to allow this population to practice while undergoing opioid substitution therapy.

The incidence of drug diversion among health care professionals (HCPs) as indicated by referral to treatment centers has been reported to be between 1% and 2%,1 but estimates based on anonymous self-report suggest the actual number may be as high as 10%,2,3 mirroring that of the general population.4 It remains controversial whether it is safe for these recovering individuals to return to clinical practice after treatment for drug addiction. Current recommendations for reentry are based on collective expert opinion with little empirical data.

For HCPs in recovery from opioid abuse, the use of pharmacotherapeutics, such as methadone and buprenorphine, is particularly controversial, as indicated by the difficulty encountered while attempting to obtain information regarding individual state policy. Some states allow reentry of HCPs undergoing buprenorphine maintenance therapy; others are adamant that reentry remain strictly forbidden. Some do not have any official policy, whereas others take a “hands-off” approach and allow the individual's addiction counselor to make the decision. Several states have demonstrated reluctance to share their policies.

In this article, we review the pharmacology of buprenorphine, summarize reports of problems associated with its use in the general population, and report a survey of individual states' views on whether opioid-abusing HCPs can return to work vis-à-vis use of buprenorphine as a part of a treatment program.


Intended Uses

Buprenorphine is a semisynthetic, partial μ-opioid agonist and κ-receptor antagonist that is currently used for analgesia and to treat opioid dependence.5 The use of buprenorphine as treatment for opioid dependence was first approved in France in 1995, and it currently is approved for such use in 44 countries worldwide.6 Compared with full μ-agonists, it is believed that buprenorphine has a safer pharmacodynamic profile because of its slow dissociation from μ-receptors and less respiratory depression.5,7 This slow dissociation allows for less frequent dosing but can make detoxification from the drug difficult.

A limited number of approaches are available for managing and treating drug abuse, namely, a harm reduction and damage control model or an abstinence-based model. Not all addicted individuals necessarily adhere to an abstinence-based model, so the treatment provider needs to consider the risks vs benefits of a harm reduction model (eg, the risks to the addicted HCP or their patients of spreading blood-borne pathogens such as human immunodeficiency virus or hepatitis via infected syringes) and decide which treatment modality will be the most efficacious for the individual.

Effects and Adverse Effects

Despite its partial μ-agonist qualities, buprenorphine still induces the same physiologic responses as full μ-agonists, including cognitive and psychomotor impairment, memory deficits, miosis, respiratory depression, decreased gastrointestinal motility and urinary retention, and nausea. As well, it has been reported by users to have “euphoric” and “drug-liking” qualities and is associated with drug dependence and subsequent withdrawal.4,8,9 Table 1 compares the pharmacologic properties of different buprenorphine- and naloxone-containing preparations.10

Summary of Pharmacotherapeutics

Abuse Potential

As a partial μ-agonist, buprenorphine is not completely free of abuse potential, although it may have less potential than a full μ-agonist, such as methadone. Several studies have addressed the abuse potential of buprenorphine specifically. After reports of patients crushing buprenorphine pills and administering them parenterally, the oral tablets were manufactured in a 4:1 ratio of buprenorphine with naloxone (a full μ-antagonist; Suboxone). Naloxone (Narcan), the antidote for acute opiate overdose, is a full antagonist capable of reversing all μ-receptor activity. The naloxone is not absorbed systemically when buprenorphine with naloxone is taken orally as intended, but intravenous administration can precipitate withdrawal in dependent individuals and will prevent the euphoria associated with pure buprenorphine.3,4,9

Smith et al11 analyzed poison control center hot-line calls from 2003 to 2005, using specific call inclusion criteria that would be highly suggestive of buprenorphine abuse. Interestingly, they found that the combination drug of buprenorphine and naloxone had a higher abuse ratio than plain buprenorphine, although the authors did not speculate why this might be the case. An obvious limitation of this study is that there is no way to track how many patients abused these medications without calling poison control. Maxwell and McCance-Katz12 conducted a similar study. In addition to poison control data, they added emergency department visits, treatment admissions, deaths, prescriptions written, surveys, and toxicology laboratory data to track buprenorphine use and abuse. Their data clearly show fewer poison control center calls and deaths related to buprenorphine vs methadone. Their data also depict a sharp increase in buprenorphine distribution with an enhanced difficulty tracking this drug because it is also prescribed for pain.

Winstock et al13 investigated the methods and motivations for buprenorphine diversion (taking the drug in a different manner than the one prescribed). Described methods of drug diversion include hiding the oral preparation in a piece of gum or surreptitiously removing it from the mouth when buprenorphine is administered in a monitored setting. Most patients initially denied diversion when confronted, but admitted reasons for diversion included the following: too high a dose, desire to stockpile the drug to manage withdrawal, desire not to take buprenorphine, fear of greater addiction, fear of buprenorphine withdrawal, and fear of precipitated withdrawal. Other reasons included intent to divert the medication to a friend or other person or plans to inject the medication at a later time. In a different study, Winstock et al14 implemented a cross-sectional survey of 669 community pharmacists to analyze buprenorphine diversion. The authors explain that detection is difficult because the tablets are small and thus easy to hide in the oral cavity. As well, the tablets take several minutes to dissolve sublingually, and it is tedious and time-consuming for physicians to verify full dissolution.

Neurocognitive Effects

Many clinical trials have assessed psychomotor performance, decision-making ability, and neurocognitive functioning while under the influence of buprenorphine.15 Pickworth et al16 investigated the subjective and physiologic effects of intravenous buprenorphine in healthy volunteers. Although the number of participants in their study was small (6), the researchers found, when compared with placebo, that participants had responses prototypical of full μ-opioid agonists, including increased positive responses regarding “feel drug” questions and scores on “liking” scales, “good effects,” euphoria, and apathetic sedation.

Zacny et al17 compared subjective, psychomotor, and physiologic effects of intravenous buprenorphine, morphine, and placebo (saline) in 16 healthy volunteers. Participants were not currently drug dependent and did not have a history of substance abuse or dependence, but all reported a history of experimentation. The authors implemented 5 subjective measures and 6 tests of psychomotor and cognitive performance. Subjective measures included “drug liking,” a locally developed visual analog scale, and the Addiction Research Center Inventory. Psychomotor-cognitive tests included eye-hand coordination, auditory reaction time, a logical reasoning test, and a memory test. The results were unexpected: buprenorphine produced impairment in 5 of 6 measures of psychomotor performance in a dose-dependent fashion, whereas morphine caused minimal impairment. Furthermore, it was buprenorphine, not morphine, that caused more respiratory depression.

Schindler et al18 assessed driving aptitude in 30 patients receiving maintenance therapy, half taking methadone and the other half taking buprenorphine. They used the ART 2020 Standard (Act & React Test system) to evaluate 7 different domains of traffic-relevant performance, including concentration capacity, reactive behavior, orientation, and stress resistance. The authors report no overall difference between the methadone and buprenorphine groups; however, significant differences were found between them and the controls. In particular, the buprenorphine group exhibited a significant number of incorrect reactions in the attention test under the monotonous circumstances portion of the examination.

Mintzer et al19 analyzed the dose-effect relationship on performance in opioid-dependent volunteers, using repeated administration of buprenorphine and naloxone instead of a single-dose regimen. The researchers used a computerized version of the Digit Symbol Substitution Test, 2 computerized Trail-Making Tests, and a time estimation task. The use of a control group is not described; rather, repeated measures were administered to the same participants. They did not detect impairment until the highest dose of buprenorphine-naloxone (32 mg/8 mg), for which recognition memory was negatively affected (ie, worsening performance).

Soyka et al8 studied driving-relevant psychomotor performance in 62 patients with a history of opioid dependence who were randomly assigned to buprenorphine or methadone treatment. They implemented a battery of psychomotor, cognitive, and visual perception tests that specifically addressed attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Participants were tested at baseline, then after 8 to 10 weeks of treatment, when the patients had reached a stable maintenance dose of the medication. The authors concluded that although both groups had impairment, the buprenorphine group demonstrated less impairment.

Pirastu et al20 also compared outpatients undergoing methadone and buprenorphine maintenance therapy with a history of opioid dependence but used a different battery of cognitive tests. Their instruments included the gambling task (to assess decision-making ability), the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task (to measure abstract conceptual skills, cognitive flexibility, and error feedback), and the Benton Visual Retention Test. The researchers found that the patients undergoing buprenorphine maintenance therapy performed much better in the gambling task but that the remaining test results were not significantly different.

Rapeli et al7 compared cognitive performance in buprenorphine-naloxone–treated vs methadone-treated patients during early opioid substitution therapy, comparing the 2 groups to healthy controls. The researchers implemented a battery of cognitive tests that assessed attention, working memory, and verbal memory. They found deficits in both patient groups with respect to all 3 groups of tests, but it is not clear if this was due to the substitution therapy or a residual effect of prior opioid abuse.

Jensen et al21 used 23 healthy volunteers to evaluate the pharmacokinetic-pharmacodynamic relationships of cognitive and psychomotor effects of intravenous buprenorphine. Three tests were used for neuropsychological measurements: the Trail-Making Test (to measure neurologic impairment and to test visual information processing), the Finger-Tapping Test (a simple measure of psychomotor speed and motor control), and the continuous reaction time (to measure vigilance and attention by testing ability to respond to external stimuli). The authors found that buprenorphine significantly impaired cognition and psychomotor performance in all domains tested.

Messinis et al5 studied patients undergoing buprenorphine maintenance therapy vs abstinent heroin abusers undergoing naltrexone therapy. This study was unique in that 1 group was taking a full μ-antagonist. A total of 50 patients were recruited from drug treatment programs and were given a battery of neuropsychological tests to assess a broad range of cognitive functions, including verbal learning and memory, verbal fluency and language, visual learning and memory, psychomotor speed and attention, selective-sustained attention, and executive functioning. The researchers found that the buprenorphine group performed worse than the controls (naltrexone) on several cognitive tasks, in particular, the encoding and delayed recall of verbal information, conceptual flexibility and executive functions, and visual perception and delayed recall of visual information.

Professional Health Programs

Recognizing the significant investment of limited societal resources in the education and training of HCPs, programs designed to rehabilitate addicted HCPs and return them to clinical practice have been created by most state medical or nursing societies. Maintaining a balance between preservation of these resources and maintenance of patient and public safety, these professional health programs (PHPs) offer an alternative to outright suspension or revocation of the license to practice, provided the professional complies with the rehabilitation contract and remains in recovery. Voluntary enrollment in these programs temporarily prevents action by the state licensing board and allows for eventual return to clinical practice. However, a number of HCPs are participating in PHPs without the knowledge of the licensure board. These individuals are either self-referred or referred to PHPs by hospitals, practices, treatment centers, or others. Although these individuals are subject to the same terms imposed on participants referred as part of an alternative to discipline program, the state board of medicine or nursing does not necessarily have knowledge of their status unless reported by the PHP.

We inquired of the 51 physician programs in the United States what their stance is concerning returning an HCP to the workplace while the HCP is undergoing buprenorphine maintenance therapy. Fully 25 remained unavailable for comment despite our multiple attempts to contact them, 2 programs replied that they were unwilling to discuss this issue, and 1 program director “felt uncomfortable” revealing the state's practice. The nursing programs were a little more cooperative, although 16 of 51 state programs still remained unavailable for comment on this issue. Table 2 summarizes the individual physician and nursing policies by state.

State Policies Regarding Reentry of HCPs Undergoing Buprenorphine Maintenance Therapy


Most studies evaluating the effects of buprenorphine maintenance therapy found some degree of impairment when participants were subjected to a variety of tests designed to assess particular nuances of higher cerebral functioning. Many studies compared performance with buprenorphine vs methadone, clearly showing that although buprenorphine causes less impairment, it still causes impairment. Unfortunately, evidence is lacking in the specific population of HCPs treated with this medication. Studies need to be conducted that evaluate participants' ability to perform tasks specific to those required of HCPs while undergoing buprenorphine therapy. These studies should involve standardized patients or operating room simulation, using realistic scenarios that require rapid analysis and action, complex decision making, eye-hand coordination, and fine motor skills.

Considerations of damage control and harm reduction are appropriately influential when prescribing pharmacotherapeutic adjuncts in a comprehensive program of recovery. For example, if the only way for a heroin addict to maintain abstinence is to become dependent on methadone or buprenorphine, the risk-benefit ratio may be justified. From an epidemiologic standpoint, dependence on these other medications can reduce the risk of human immunodeficiency virus infection, hepatitis, and other complications related to intravenous drug use. These harm-reducing measures multiply in heroin-abusing populations that are known to share needles, but they hardly apply to the population of addicted HCPs because these people typically have access to sterile needles and syringes, thus reducing that risk exponentially.

The effect of abstinence-based recovery has implications apart from the public health and safety considerations. The improved quality of life for the professional under this model of treatment further justifies the use of the abstinence model specifically in HCPs, and the literature suggests that the success rate of PHPs is much higher than in other populations.22 This offers another argument against use of buprenorphine in HCPs and one that may be more persuasive to addicted professionals and others who are considering how to get them needed help.

Abstinence from all potentially addictive drugs remains the criterion standard for HCPs in recovery. Most PHPs that use an abstinence-based model for physicians in recovery report success rates far in excess of other programs.23 There is a long history of success using this model, and the most recent data reported only 22% of physicians testing positive for drugs of abuse at any time during their 5-year monitoring contract and fully 71% remaining licensed and employed 5 years after their initial treatment.24 In certain situations, potentially addictive drugs can and should be used when the benefit outweighs the risk, but in most of these cases, the situation is extreme and generally time limited. In the case of HCPs in early recovery who are not working clinically, patient safety is not compromised, but the longer-term use of these potentially addictive medications is problematic. These medications can interfere with mandated drug testing and increase the liability carried by the HCP and employer should there be a bad patient outcome. The inability to remain abstinent is often associated with multiple relapses. Although these medications can be widely used to help retain people in the detoxification phase of treatment, maintenance is another matter and indicates severe difficulty with maintaining recovery. More important, these drugs may actually be “psychotoxic” to those in recovery, and inability to remain abstinent without opioid maintenance therapy may be a potential predictor of increased risk for relapse (Mark Broadhead, MD, medical director of the Idaho Physician Health Program, oral communication, February 24, 2011).

The real possibility of relapse once recovering HCPs have returned to clinical practice has a number of implications for the health and safety of the HCPs and their patients. Because the risk of relapse and death is highest during the first year of sobriety and decreases over time, it seems reasonable that the HCP in recovery should spend some time away from clinical practice before returning to work. The appropriate length away from clinical practice after discharge from the initial inpatient treatment facility has not been determined. Most nursing programs require a period away from clinical practice, ranging from a few months to a year or more, but this practice is not standardized and varies from state to state. Physician programs are equally varied, and although recommendations suggesting a minimum of 1 year have been made,25 there is still no consensus.26 When a formerly opioid-dependent HCP who is maintained with a full μ-opioid antagonist (naltrexone) returns to clinical practice, it undeniably strengthens the safety net. Conversely, if a reentrant is taking a partial μ-agonist and relapses on a very potent full μ-agonist, such as fentanyl, it is reasonable to assume that this would precipitate an overdose.


Opioid-addicted HCPs are masters of drug diversion. Education does not grant anybody immunity from developing addiction, and in this population, intelligence can be used to cleverly circumvent narcotic accountability and drug substitution. When considering all of the aforementioned issues with buprenorphine diversion, it does not seem reasonable to prescribe this medication to an HCP with a history of opioid addiction. After carefully considering the evidence, we believe that opioid-substitution therapy with buprenorphine is not a reasonable choice for this particular patient population. HCPs are engaged in safety-sensitive work that requires vigilance and full cognitive function. We therefore recommend abstinence-based recovery until studies with this specific HCP population performed in a simulated health care environment document that highly safety-sensitive tasks can be performed without deterioration in performance.


For editorial comment, seepage 213

Grant Support: Funding support was provided solely from institutional and departmental sources.

Supplemental Online Material

Video 1:

Author Interview Video


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