Nfld. & Labrador

New 'game-changer' implant to treat opiate addiction comes to N.L.

A doctor in Springdale is the first physician in the province certified to insert a new implant that cuts out the need for daily visits to a pharmacy for patients with opiate addiction.

Springdale doctor first to administer a buprenorphine implant

Dr. Todd Young inserted the first buprenorphine implant last Thursday, for a man from Triton. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

A doctor in Springdale has become the first physician in Newfoundland and Labrador to administer a new treatment for people with opioid addictions, one that frees patients up from having to work their lives around daily or weekly pharmacy visits.

The treatment requires a doctor to insert four matchstick-sized rods containing the medication buprenorphine under the skin of a patient's arm, just below their bicep. Those rods then release controlled doses of medication for up to six months, as opposed to taking a daily dose in pill form.

The implant, also known by its brand name Probuphine, was certified by Health Canada in April 2018, two years after its American approval. 

"It's a breakthrough, really, " said Dr. Todd Young, who runs a clinic in Springdale and became certified to insert the implants several months ago. Young used those skills for the first time Oct. 17 to insert the implant into the arm of a man from Triton, who works on rotation in Alberta.

Young said the patient had struggled trying to get to a pharmacy while at work, but will now switch to monthly visits back in Newfoundland for monitoring and urine testing.

"This will be a game-changer for him," Young told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

Buprenorphine, a drug which controls heroin and opioid cravings, has previously been available in tablet form. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

Meant for 'highly motivated patients'

Young says among his patients, there are another eight to 10 people who stand to be candidates to receive an implant, although not every patient in opioid addiction treatment is eligible.

People must be over 16, not pregnant, and currently be taking less than eight milligrams of buprenorphine.

"We've had many patients that are interested," he said, estimating only five to eight per cent of his patients actually meet the necessary physical and mental qualifications.

"I think highly motivated patients, who've certainly shown that they are serious about their treatment, would be considered."

Every patient in addiction treatment signs a contract, and Young said if someone with the implant failed a drug test or another condition and breached that contract, the implant could then be removed.

But overall, "this is certainly less likely to be abused than any drugs that are out there," Young said.

There are a few possible complications associated with the implant, such as infection or nerve damage, but Young said those are relatively low risk.

The implant costs about $1,500, and is covered by private insurance plans and a federal Indigenous drug program, but not the provincial prescription drug program. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show and CBC Newfoundland Morning