Substitution treatment for opioid addicts in Germany

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BACKGROUND: After a long and controversial debate methadone maintenance treatment (MMT) was first introduced in Germany in 1987. The number of patients in MMT--first low because of strict admission criteria--increased considerably since the 1990s up to some 65,000 at the end of 2006. In Germany each general practitioner (GP), who has completed an additional training in addiction medicine, is allowed to prescribe substitution drugs to opioid dependent patients. Currently 2,700 GPs prescribe substitution drugs. Psychosocial care should be made available to all MMT patients. RESULTS: The results of research studies and practical experiences clearly indicate that patients benefit substantially from MMT with improvements in physical and psychological health. MMT proves successful in attaining high retention rates (65% to 85% in the first years, up to 50% after more than seven years) and plays a major role in accessing and maintaining ongoing medical treatment for HIV and hepatitis. MMT is also seen as a vital factor in the process of social re-integration and it contributes to the reduction of drug related harms such as mortality and morbidity and to the prevention of infectious diseases. Some 10% of MMT patients become drug-free in the long run. Methadone is the most commonly prescribed substitution medication in Germany, although buprenorphine is attaining rising importance. Access to MMT in rural areas is very patchy and still constitutes a problem. There are only few employment opportunities for patients participating in MMT, although regular employment is considered unanimously as a positive factor of treatment success. Substitution treatment in German prisons is heterogeneous in access and treatment modalities. Access is very patchy and the number of inmates in treatment is limited. Nevertheless, substitution treatment plays a substantial part in the health care system provided to drug users in Germany. CONCLUSION: In Germany, a history of substitution treatment spanning 20 years has meanwhile accumulated a wealth of experience, e.g. in the development of research on health care services, guidelines and the implementation of quality assurance measures. Implementing substitution treatment with concomitant effects and treatment elements such as drug history-taking, dosage setting, co-use of other psychoactive substances (alcohol, benzodiazepines, cocaine), management of 'difficult patient populations', and integration into the social environment has been arranged successfully. Also psychosocial counseling programmes adjuvant to substitution treatment have been established and, in the framework of a pilot project on heroin-based treatment, standardised manuals were developed. Research on allocating opioid users to the 'right' form of therapy at the 'right' point in time is still a challenge, though the pilot project 'heroin-based treatment' brought experience with patients who do not benefit from methadone treatment. There is also expertise in the treatment of specific co-morbidity such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and psychiatric disorders. The promotion and involvement of self-help groups plays an important part in the process of successful substitution treatment.




Michels, I. I., Stöver, H., & Gerlach, R. (2007). Substitution treatment for opioid addicts in Germany. Harm Reduction Journal, 4.

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