Most residential treatment centers don’t offer key addiction medication to teens, OHSU study finds

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
June 26, 2023 12 p.m.
A small white pill bottle with a label that reads "buprenorphine, 2 mg"

Buprenorphine, shown in this provided photo, is the only opioid dependence medication approved for adolescents. New research from OHSU shows the drug is only offered in about a quarter of the country's adolescent residential treatment centers.

Courtesy Oregon Health & Science University

There’s only one drug approved by the FDA to treat opioid dependence in teens — and most adolescent treatment facilities don’t offer it.


That’s according to a new study from Oregon Health & Science University, which found that only a quarter of the country’s residential treatment facilities offered buprenorphine to teens.

The drug activates the same receptors as opioids such as fentanyl and heroin, but doesn’t produce the same intensity of euphoria.

“It gives the brain an opportunity to heal,” said Caroline King, who led the study as a medical student at OHSU. “It decreases cravings for drugs and allows your brain to kind of put itself back together again while you’re in recovery.”

Buprenorphine is approved for patients age 16 and older, and is typically used for teens with moderate to severe opioid use disorder.


Over the course of the study, King and her team called roughly 350 centers that said they provide residential treatment for opioid use disorder to patients under age 18.

Researchers posed as the aunt or uncle of a 16-year-old who had recently experienced a non-fatal overdose. King said this “secret shopper” approach allowed researchers to receive the same information a center would offer to a family in crisis, rather than a research physician.

King said the No. 1 thing they heard about buprenorphine was misinformation.

“We heard things that were really blatantly untrue, like that it soaks into your bones and that it’s more dangerous than fentanyl,” she said. “Some people would say, ‘I’m not a doctor, but I would never put my child on this.’”

King said she hopes the study will lead to better regulation of these centers. Pediatricians and family medicine doctors working more closely with treatment centers could also lead to better treatment for teens, she added.

“Any parent or family member that is calling a center in the middle of a crisis should be able to call and know that if their loved one goes there, they will receive evidence-based care,” she said. “That is not currently something that can happen, which is an incredible shame.”

Dr. Caroline King spoke to OPB host Jenn Chávez on “Think Out Loud.” Click play to listen to the full conversation:


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