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Special Communication
October 4, 2000

Drug Dependence, a Chronic Medical Illness: Implications for Treatment, Insurance, and Outcomes Evaluation

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: The Treatment Research Institute, Philadelphia, Pa (Dr McLellan); The Penn/VA Center for Studies of Addiction at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (Drs McLellan and O'Brien); The Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, Providence, RI (Dr Lewis); and The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, New York, NY (Dr Kleber).

JAMA. 2000;284(13):1689-1695. doi:10.1001/jama.284.13.1689

The effects of drug dependence on social systems has helped shape the generally held view that drug dependence is primarily a social problem, not a health problem. In turn, medical approaches to prevention and treatment are lacking. We examined evidence that drug (including alcohol) dependence is a chronic medical illness. A literature review compared the diagnoses, heritability, etiology (genetic and environmental factors), pathophysiology, and response to treatments (adherence and relapse) of drug dependence vs type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and asthma. Genetic heritability, personal choice, and environmental factors are comparably involved in the etiology and course of all of these disorders. Drug dependence produces significant and lasting changes in brain chemistry and function. Effective medications are available for treating nicotine, alcohol, and opiate dependence but not stimulant or marijuana dependence. Medication adherence and relapse rates are similar across these illnesses. Drug dependence generally has been treated as if it were an acute illness. Review results suggest that long-term care strategies of medication management and continued monitoring produce lasting benefits. Drug dependence should be insured, treated, and evaluated like other chronic illnesses.

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