Penn State-led project focuses on opioid addiction treatment in teens

Substance use disorders continue to rise at alarming rates among adolescents, with opioid abuse contributing to this significant public health problem. A Penn State researcher and his team will receive over $1.8 million over three years from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to investigate how opioid use is treated in adolescence.

According to principal investigator Doug Leslie, director of the Center for Applied Studies in Health Economics and professor of public health sciences and psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine, the nonmedical use of prescription opioids by adolescents has surpassed all illicit drugs after marijuana.

"Adolescent opioid abuse often leads to dependence and poses serious risk for heroin abuse or overdose. While we know a lot about how opioid use disorder (OUD) is treated in adults, typically through a mix of psychotherapy and medications, we don't know how kids are being treated."

Leslie, also an affiliate faculty member of Penn State's Consortium to Combat Substance Abuse and the Clinical and Translational Research Institute, suspects many adolescents are not receiving adequate psychotherapy. And since many of the addiction medications are not approved for pediatric use, adolescents are probably not receiving them either.

Additionally, barriers to treatment, such as lack of knowledge, insufficient access, and inadequate health care further enable the epidemic to persist. "It is especially concerning when you consider a large proportion of adults with substance use disorders report drug use beginning in adolescence," Leslie said.

To discover how OUD is being treated in adolescents, Leslie and his research team will study two insurance claims databases that include both publicly and privately insured individuals aged 10 to 21 for the years 2005 through 2016. Specifically, they will identify individuals who had an OUD diagnosis, with at least one year of continuous enrollment in treatment before and after the date of the first OUD diagnosis.

This will enable the researchers to follow patients over long periods of time to identify opioid use patterns leading up to OUD, as well as long-term treatment patterns and outcomes, including relapse. Additionally, they will be able to link the patients to family members to answer important questions regarding parental opioid use.

"With this information, we'll be able to identify patterns and bring awareness to an extremely vulnerable age group that has been deeply affected by the widespread misuse of opioids," Leslie explained. "As a result, providers, insurers and policymakers will be better able to design developmentally appropriate treatment processes and policies to help alleviate this major public health crisis."

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