The United States is currently grappling with an opioid epidemic, prompting the development of Opioid Overdose Education and Naloxone Distribution programs (OEND) and Suboxone distribution programs as a response in certain states. Among other aims, these programs educate individuals at risk about opioid misuse and provide tools for prevention, recognition, response, and treatment. This review examines the effectiveness of these programs and their impact on community engagement in the uptake and use of naloxone and Suboxone. Naloxone is effective as a therapy to save the lives of overdose victims, whereas Suboxone provides a way to treat Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) in pre- or post-overdose patients. This review includes twenty-nine relevant studies from the last twelve years. These studies reveal that naloxone distribution programs, including pharmacy-based, community-based, and peer distribution models, effectively reduce opioid-related deaths. Furthermore, community engagement in program design enhances cultural sensitivity, ownership, and sustainability. Additionally, our review highlights that the implementation of system-based distribution programs of Suboxone is more efficacious in providing successful patient-centered treatment. However, challenges such as limited funding, legal restrictions, and stigma hinder program success. Ongoing evaluation, adaptation, and collaboration are crucial for improving program effectiveness and addressing the evolving opioid crisis.
The surge in opioid misuse, a multifaceted and severe public health crisis, has profoundly affected individuals, communities, and the healthcare infrastructure. This crisis is marked by a sharp rise in Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), including a dramatic escalation in opioid- related fatalities . The prevalent use of opioids for managing chronic pain has significantly contributed to this problem . This crisis affects diverse groups, including expectant mothers and infants, and yields long-term negative effects. The opioid public health crisis has had far-reaching impact, not only on the health of individuals but also on societal domains such as child welfare, education, and public budgets [2,3]. It's crucial to persistently research and monitor this crisis to formulate evidence-based tactics and interventions to lessen its impact . This multifaceted epidemic requires a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to address its causes, consequences, and potential solutions .
Opioid overdose Education and Naloxone Distribution (OEND) programs are crucial public health interventions aimed at reducing opioid-related deaths. These programs provide education and training to individuals at risk of overdose as well as to their social network, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to prevent, recognize, and respond to an overdose . Naloxone, an opioid antagonist, is a critical component of these programs as it can reverse the effects of opioid overdose and restore normal breathing . OEND programs have been implemented in various settings, including community-based programs, residential treatment programs, and juvenile detention centers. Despite research showing the effectiveness of OEND programs in reducing opioid-related overdose deaths and acute care utilization rates,  challenges still arise in adapting naloxone programs to the evolving opioid epidemic, such as the emergence of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and the need for new standards for post-overdose care . Despite these challenges, OEND programs have demonstrated their potential to save lives and should be expanded and integrated into conventional medical settings .
In addition to distributing naloxone to decrease deaths due to immediate opioid overdose, Suboxone distribution programs have proved efficacious in providing treatment options for patients affected by opioid addictions. Suboxone is a combination medication commonly used to treat OUD . It consists of buprenorphine, a partial opioid agonist, and naloxone, an opioid antagonist . In a meta-analysis of 31 trials involving 5430 participants, high-quality evidence was presented that Suboxone at any dose is statistically significant in the retention of participants in treatment compared to placebo . The mechanism of action of Suboxone involves binding to the same opioid receptors in the brain targeted by other opioids, thus making the receptors unavailable for a drug such as fentanyl. Because of its partial agonist properties, Suboxone produces less euphoria and respiratory depression than full opioid agonists and is thus much safer and has much less abuse potential than full opioid agonists [7,8]. Suboxone is considered a first-line treatment option for OUD and is effective in reducing opioid cravings, preventing withdrawal symptoms, and decreasing illicit opioid use . Suboxone is primarily used as a long-term maintenance treatment for OUD, whereas naloxone is an emergency opioid overdose reversal medication. Despite evidence supporting the effectiveness of Suboxone distribution via clinics and system-based distribution programs, uncertainties and misconceptions can prevent its utilization by communities . By addressing barriers, increasing awareness, and promoting widespread access to naloxone and Suboxone, these programs can play a crucial role in preventing opioid-related deaths and improving public health outcomes.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, opioid-involved overdose deaths rose rapidly in 2010, had a steady increase until 2017, and spiked again in 2021 . Accordingly; we did not review evidence before 2011 due to the ever-evolving nature of the opioid epidemic and the relevance of this timeframe. Our strategy involved searching databases to identify relevant literature involving changes in the protocols addressing naloxone, and Suboxone use to prevent death and facilitate recovery, respectively. The search involved the following key phrases: “naloxone distribution programs,” “opioid education programs,” “effectiveness of OEND programs in decreasing opioid-related deaths,” “Suboxone as a treatment strategy of OUD,” “access to naloxone,” “effectiveness of Suboxone distribution programs in treating OUD,” and “access to Suboxone.” The inclusion criteria for selecting studies included systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and narrative reviews that presented rigorous conclusions about the efficacy of naloxone programs, opioid education programs, and Suboxone treatment programs. Conference abstracts, editorials, and commentary articles were excluded. The titles and abstracts of the studies were screened based on the established inclusion and exclusion criteria. Twenty-nine relevant studies within the last twelve years were retrieved. These methods ensured that the selected studies were appropriate for investigating this study's research questions and objectives.
- Implementation and effectiveness of education and distribution programs
Various educational approaches have been utilized in opioid overdose programs to increase the knowledge and awareness of opioid overdose prevention. The methods used in these programs aim to provide individuals with the necessary skills and resources to prevent, recognize, and respond to overdoses. Specifically, the drug naloxone (a medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose)  is distributed in many programs along with the necessary training on how to administer naloxone and engage emergency medical services in the event of an overdose .
Two studies were particularly interesting because of their analysis of the impact of education on the uptake of naloxone distribution (OEND). A review of outcomes showed that communities with OEND programs experienced a decrease in opioid overdose-related death rates by 27-61% compared to communities without educational programs . An additional study documented the effectiveness of educational programs on saving lives independent of whether the trainees were professional were professionally trained rescuers or had enrolled in and received training from OEND educational programs . In either case, outcomes were not different. These findings suggest that education programs can effectively train individuals to respond to opioid overdoses and provide evidence suggesting that the expansion of OEND programs can be expected to save lives.
Does naloxone treatment to prevent overdose death result in decreased propensity to engage in OUD? Although some overdose victims saved by naloxone administration altered or decreased their opioid use, some resumed the same opioid use pattern. However, most patients were grateful that naloxone saved their lives . However, no specific studies were found addressing the correlation between patients suffering from OUD seeking long-term treatment and rehab enrollment after naloxone administration. This is a glaring need for more research. Another study found that individuals were more likely to seek treatment if the healthcare workers discussed substance abuse during their care . These two studies indicate that a near-death experience with naloxone reversal can influence some individuals to change their habits. Education and behavioral health need to be incorporated into any distribution program.
In addition to implementing naloxone-use training, OEND educational programs have also been evaluated for their impact on opioid-related behaviors and risk reduction in the affected community. A study reviewed the evolution of naloxone programming and highlighted the key elements of community-based overdose-prevention programs, including overdose education and naloxone distribution. The study emphasized the importance of adapting naloxone programming to the dynamic opioid epidemic, including the scale-up to new venues and social networks . Another successful strategy is the use of short-form opioid overdose video education, which has been shown to positively impact participants' attitudes toward overdose .
- Impact on community engagement and empowerment
Education programs are crucial in promoting community involvement and empowerment in addressing the opioid overdose crisis . These programs engage community members, including opioid users, their families, social service agency staff, and friends, in the design and implementation of interventions . Via the involvement of communities, education programs ensure that the strategies and resources provided are tailored to the specific needs and challenges faced by that specific population. As mentioned previously, successful community engagement strategies include the distribution of naloxone rescue kits and training individuals on overdose prevention and response . Involving affected communities in the design and implementation of education programs is crucial for several reasons. This approach ensures that the programs are culturally sensitive and responsive to the unique needs and challenges faced by different communities, as all may have different needs. For example, research has shown that the opioid overdose crisis has disproportionately impacted Black Americans, highlighting the importance of addressing racial inequities in overdose deaths . Secondly, involving affected communities fosters a sense of ownership and empowerment, as community members become active participants in addressing the crisis . This can lead to increased engagement, adherence and sustainability of interventions. Finally, it should be noted that community involvement helps to build trust and strengthen relationships between community members and healthcare providers or organizations, which is essential for effective implementation and long-term success .
- Role of naloxone distribution programs
The primary medication used to reverse opioid overdose is naloxone. It is biologically inactive in terms of producing opioid-like effects, and its mechanism of action involves displacing opioids from their receptors and thereby restoring the baseline function of the tissues containing the receptors . Naloxone is especially useful as it can quickly restore normal breathing in those experiencing an opioid overdose.
To increase access to naloxone, many different models of naloxone distribution programs have been implemented. These models include pharmacy-based programs, community- based programs, and peer distribution programs. Three main naloxone distribution programs have been studied, and outcomes have been documented. Studies have shown that these programs are associated with a decrease in opioid-related deaths and an increase in the number of overdose reversals [6,19]. For example, a study conducted in Massachusetts found that communities with higher rates of naloxone distribution had lower rates of opioid-related deaths . Another study conducted in North Carolina reported a 40% decline in overdose mortality associated with naloxone distribution and overdose prevention education . Pharmacy-based naloxone distribution programs involve training pharmacists to dispense, without the requirement of a prescription, naloxone to individuals and their family members at high risk of opioid overdose. These programs have proven to increase access to naloxone, positively impact overdose reversals, and reduce opioid-related deaths .
Community-based naloxone distribution programs focus on training community members, such as outreach workers or peers, to distribute naloxone and provide overdose prevention education . Community-based programs have also been effective in increasing naloxone access and reducing opioid-related deaths . Peer distribution programs involve training individuals who use opioids to distribute naloxone to their peers. These programs leverage the knowledge and experience of individuals who use opioids to reach those with the highest overdose risk . Peer distribution is likewise effective in increasing naloxone access and reducing opioid-related deaths .
Cost, legal restrictions, and stigma are a few barriers that can limit people's access to naloxone, thereby preventing individuals at risk of overdose from obtaining this life- saving medication. Many individuals may not be able to afford naloxone, especially if they do not have insurance. The cost of naloxone is variable, depending on the formulation and pharmacy. For example, a study in Pennsylvania showed variations in out-of-pocket prices for this medication from various pharmacies .
Legal restrictions can also impede naloxone access. Some states require a prescription to obtain naloxone, while others do not. Evidence suggests that state laws granting direct authority to pharmacists to provide naloxone can help reduce fatal overdoses . These laws empower pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription, increasing access to the medication.
The stigma associated with opioid abuse and overdose can create barriers to naloxone access. This stigma can deter at-risk individuals from seeking or carrying naloxone for fear of discrimination or judgment. A study conducted in New York City found that substance use stigma was a barrier preventing people who use opioids from accepting, carrying, and administering naloxone . The stigma barrier associated with opioid abuse can be addressed through education and awareness campaigns.
Many strategies have been implemented to improve naloxone availability and overcome the barriers to naloxone access. Standing order policies can allow pharmacists to dispense naloxone without an individual prescription . Naloxone distribution initiatives and programs are also very helpful in overcoming access barriers .
As stated, while naloxone is used as an emergency opioid overdose reversal medication, Suboxone is primarily used as a long-term maintenance treatment for OUD. In a 2020 study, it was found that the highest rates of opioid-related deaths occurred in West Virginia (40.03 per 100,000) and New Hampshire (32.74 per 100,000), while the lowest opioid mortality rates were seen in Texas (4.93 per 100,000) and California (5.13 per 100,000) . Upon review of data provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) regarding the number of Opioid Treatment Programs (OTPs) available in the states listed above, we note that West Virginia had 9 OTPs, New Hampshire 11, Texas 98, and California 167 . These findings strongly suggest that the number of OTPs and their geographical placements correlates with fewer opioid-related deaths. Education concerning the impact of such programs could be expected to increase their uptake.
In a separate study performed in 2018, different primary care and system-based treatment distribution methods of Suboxone were evaluated . It was noted that the most common form of Suboxone dissemination was through psychiatrists and primary care physicians in private practices or small clinic settings. Suboxone distribution in this manner is typical, as it has been shown to reduce opioid use and improve treatment retention . However, the study showed that although dissemination via small clinic settings allowed patients greater access to treatment, it ran the risk of inadequate forms of treatments and possible diversions from recommended treatment plans. In attempts to highlight the advantages of system-based treatment programs, five system-based models of Suboxone distribution were evaluated. System-based models of Suboxone distribution included criteria such as the use of the following resources: emergency rooms to initiate treatment, inpatient medical floors, primary care, and psychiatry offices, and access to psychiatric and addiction care in inpatient and intensive outpatient substance abuse programs . It was found that patients who were induced on Suboxone/Buprenorphine during admissions for other medical issues and referred to affiliated addiction clinics were more likely to follow through with outpatient treatments than those who initially received their prescriptions from outpatient clinics. The authors use this data to highlight the efficacy of a system- based model in Suboxone maintenance treatments. The benefits of system-based approaches included expanded and rapid access to treatment, supplementary support for prescribers and physicians, and additional flexibility to alter forms of treatment and care depending on patient outcomes . It was concluded that Suboxone remains an underutilized treatment despite its proven efficacy, safety, and ease of distribution/use .
Moreover, Suboxone plays a vital role in the settings of rehabilitation and inpatient treatments. The American Society of Addiction Medicine National Practice Guidelines stress the importance of Suboxone in medication-assisted treatment . As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, Suboxone is particularly efficacious in this setting due to its ability to reduce cravings. Additionally, it is essential to note that Suboxone has a decreased risk of overdose compared to a full opioid agonist like methadone. The National Practice Guidelines emphasize the importance of individualized treatment programs and the need for support as patients transition from inpatient to outpatient. A recent Cochrane report that analyzed pharmacological therapies found that methadone may keep more people in treatment than buprenorphine but noted that when they tested for opioids in the urine, there was no difference between the groups . They also found that buprenorphine maintenance probably keeps more people in treatment and may be better at helping people reduce opioid use than non-opioid treatments . Another Cochrane report analyzed non-opioid therapies. The review analyzed 40 studies involving individuals with substance use disorders finding that Mindfulness-Based Interventions may moderately reduce substance use days post-treatment and have uncertain effects on other substance use disorder- related outcomes compared to other treatments or no treatment . Adverse effects from Mindfulness-Based Interventions were limited and inconclusive based on reported cases .
A critical evaluation of opioid overdose education, naloxone distribution programs, and the role of Suboxone in the treatment of OUD reveals various limitations and challenges. One primary challenge is sustainability. Distribution programs often face limited funding, inadequate resources, and insufficient access to naloxone. The stigma surrounding substance use disorders and overdose prevention can also hinder program participation and community support. Suboxone’s limitations include the potential for misuse and the risk of withdrawal symptoms, emphasizing the importance of careful monitoring and management. Moreover, the rapidly evolving nature of the opioid epidemic requires ongoing evaluation and adaptation of programs to respond to emerging challenges effectively.
To improve and expand opioid overdose education and naloxone distribution programs, several areas warrant attention. First, public awareness and understanding of overdose prevention strategies must be improved, including education campaigns that target different demographics and regions. Second, research addressing existing knowledge gaps must be performed to tailor evidence-based practices. This research should focus on evaluating program outcomes, exploring the impact of different distribution models as the epidemic continues to evolve, and identifying strategies to engage vulnerable populations effectively. Further research should also address whether naloxone administration affects patients entering a long-term treatment program. Furthermore, policy changes and collaborations can enhance program effectiveness. Policymakers should consider implementing policies that prioritize naloxone distribution and overdose prevention efforts.
A national program should be implemented to standardize distribution programs and unify efforts in OUD drug administration. Studies have shown that states with widespread distribution programs have a more significant impact on death prevention in OUD than those with less robust distribution and education programs. This national program would decrease discrepancies in distribution and treatment between states and facilitate collaborations between public health agencies, healthcare providers, community organizations, and law enforcement. These entities can create more impactful interventions with resources, experiences and perspectives pooled.
Additionally, more work is needed to expand access to comprehensive treatment programs that include behavioral therapies with medication-assisted treatments. A nationalized program would be invaluable in unifying naloxone distribution/utilization in tandem with continued treatment through rehabilitation programs that provide access to Suboxone in attempts to treat OUD.