Can Nurses Take Suboxone?

Table of Contents

Yes, in most states, nurses can use Suboxone to treat an opioid use disorder (OUD).

All people with substance use disorders (SUD) are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). People with OUD following a treatment plan can’t face discrimination in the workplace as long as they have a valid, legal prescription for this medication. Unfortunately, some individuals, including nurses, do still face discrimination while taking these medications.

Why Have Nurses Been Banned From Taking Suboxone?

Suboxone is a prescription medication for OUD. Many people working in hospitals and clinics , like the rest of the population, may struggle with OUD and may be candidates for Suboxone therapy.

Suboxone contains buprenorphine. When taken as directed, the medication is minimally sedating or intoxicating. People with OUD report feeling normal — not high — while using their medications. Some take the medication for years to prevent relapse and maintain abstinence.

While in theory, all individuals - including nurses - should be entitled to use this medication under the ADA, some still face discrimination:

As a nurse in Pennsylvania discovered, some employers may continue to discriminate against people on treatment for OUD. He developed an OUD and enrolled in a reinstatement program, which would allow him to work in his field if he participated in treatment and stuck to his approved program. He asked if he could use Suboxone and was told it would only be approved if he had a taper plan that would restore him to total sobriety.[1] A similar program exists in Georgia. Nurses with OUD may not return to practice until their buprenorphine use is discontinued.[2]

The bans exist due to concerns about the following:

  • Safety: Some believe Suboxone is too sedating. People using the drug could make errors, they reason, which could cause patients harm.[3]
  • Diversion: Some mistakenly believe people on Suboxone are still addicted and will steal other opioids while on the job. [4]

Employment Rights

The ADA is designed to protect all people from workplace discrimination, and those protections extend to nurses.

The ADA explicitly prohibits discrimination against people recovering from OUD, and the U.S. Department of Justice points out that those protections apply to common nursing workplaces, including these:[5]

  • Hospitals
  • Doctors' offices
  • Skilled nursing facilities

Some nurses are fighting for their rights. In Indiana, the U.S. Justice Department found that the Indiana State Nursing Board violated the ADA by prohibiting nurses with OUD from participating in programs to get their licenses back. This March 2022 ruling could have a ripple effect throughout the country. Hopefully, more nurses will get the help they need.[6]

But for now, nurses hoping to use Suboxone should proceed carefully. A treatment provider can help you understand state law and determine how to best treat your substance use disorder without losing your state nursing license.

Sources

  1. Doctors and Nurses Addicted to Opioids Are Often Barred from the Most Effective Treatment. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en/article/j5yga3/can-doctors-and-nurses-take-suboxone-or-methadone. September 2019. Accessed September 2022.
  2. Position Statement: Use of Abstinence-Based Model for Recovery for Nurses with Substance Abuse Disorder. Georgia Board of Nursing. https://sos.ga.gov/sites/default/files/forms/38%20Reference%20-%20Position%20Statement%20-%20Use%20of%20Abstinence-Based%20Model%20for%20Recovery%20for%20Nurses%20with%20Substance%20Abuse%20Disorder.pdf. March 2015. Accessed September 2022.
  3. Buprenorphine Maintenance Therapy in Opioid-Addicted Health Care Professionals Returning to Clinical Practice: A Hidden Controversy. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3538407/. March 2012. Accessed September 2022.
  4. For Health Workers Struggling with Addiction, Why Are Treatment Options Limited? NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/09/06/757990241/for-health-workers-struggling-with-addiction-why-are-treatment-options-limited. September 2019. Accessed September 2022.
  5. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Opioid Crisis: Combating Discrimination Against People in Treatment or Recovery. U.S. Department of Justice. https://www.ada.gov/opioid_guidance.pdf. April 2022. Accessed September 2022. 
  6. Justice Department Finds that Indiana State Nursing Board Discriminates Against People with Opioid Use Disorder. U.S. Department of Justice. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-finds-indiana-state-nursing-board-discriminates-against-people-opioid-use. March 2022. Accessed September 2022.

Medically Reviewed By Elena Hill, MD, MPH

Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where she works as a primary care physician as well as part time in pain management and integrated health. Her clinical interests include underserved health care, chronic pain and integrated/alternative health.

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