Feb. 8, 2021

Injectable opioid treatment program significantly helps stop illicit drug use

UCalgary research reveals wide-ranging health benefits for participants in opioid agonist treatment project
Jennifer Jackson

Alberta’s two-year-old injectable opioid agonist treatment (iOAT) program creates substantial benefits for patients and the community, says a recent study from Dr. Jennifer Jackson, RN, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Nursing.

“The program is the ‘intensive care unit’ for opioid use disorder,” says Jackson, explaining iOAT offers people injectable medication, similar to methadone, that binds to receptors and prevents opioid withdrawal. It is available through clinics in Calgary and Edmonton.

Jackson analyzed interviews that had been conducted with 23 of the approximately 90 iOAT participants. She found that all of them had stopped illicit drug use, did not have withdrawal symptoms and ended criminal behaviours. Participants said they started taking care of themselves, found housing, achieved financial stability, received primary care and connected with family.

“The relationships between the participants and the health-care professionals in the clinics were the key to success,” Jackson continues. “One participant said, ‘I have a place where I can come where I feel safe. Where I feel like people care. Where people don’t look at me like a junkie. Like an addict. They look at me like a person. They talk to me like a person.’”

The iOAT program is scheduled to close on March 31 because AHS wants to divert iOAT patients to a different addiction service. However, participants are seeking an injunction to stop the closure. “By sharing the positive results of our research with the public and government policy decision-makers, it is our hope to provide information about the program’s significance,” says Jackson. The hearing will take place Feb. 10.

Jackson’s study did not directly address the closure of the service, but she worries it will mean the finale of a successful health service. “Health care is a game of inches. Here we have a program where 100 per cent of the participants who were interviewed reported substantial, positive changes in their lives. This is unheard of in most services. If these outcomes had been found in a cancer clinic, I doubt the province would seek a closure.”

Jackson hopes her research will encourage policy-makers to look more closely at the iOAT program and consider how they can support these vulnerable clients.