Background: Syringe services programs (SSPs) hold promise for providing buprenorphine treatment access to people with opioid use disorder (OUD) who are reluctant to seek care elsewhere. In 2017, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) provided funding and technical assistance to nine SSPs to develop "low-threshold" buprenorphine services as part of a multipronged initiative to lower opioid-related overdose rates. The aim of this study was to identify barriers to and facilitators of implementing SSP-based buprenorphine services.
Methods: We conducted 26 semi-structured qualitative interviews from April 2019 to November 2019 at eight SSPs in NYC that received funding and technical assistance from DOHMH. Interviews were conducted with three categories of staff: leadership (i.e., buprenorphine program management or leadership, eight interviews), staff (i.e., buprenorphine coordinators or other staff, eleven interviews), and buprenorphine providers (six interviews). We identified themes related to barriers and facilitators to program implementation using thematic analysis. We make recommendations for implementation based on our findings.
Results: Programs differed in their stage of development, location of services provided, and provider type, availability, and practices. Barriers to providing buprenorphine services at SSPs included gaps in staff knowledge and comfort communicating with participants about buprenorphine, difficulty hiring buprenorphine providers, managing tension between harm reduction and traditional OUD treatment philosophies, and financial constraints. Challenges also arose from serving a population with unmet psychosocial needs. Implementation facilitators included technical assistance from DOHMH, designated buprenorphine coordinators, offering other supportive services to participants, and telehealth to bridge gaps in provider availability. Key recommendations include: (1) health departments should provide support for SSPs in training staff, building health service infrastructure and developing policies and procedures, (2) SSPs should designate a buprenorphine coordinator and ensure regular training on buprenorphine for frontline staff, and (3) buprenorphine providers should be selected or supported to use a harm reduction approach to buprenorphine treatment.
Conclusions: Despite encountering challenges, SSPs implemented buprenorphine services outside of conventional OUD treatment settings. Our findings have implications for health departments, SSPs, and other community organizations implementing buprenorphine services. Expansion of low-threshold buprenorphine services is a promising strategy to address the opioid overdose epidemic.
Keywords: Low-threshold buprenorphine treatment; Opioid use disorder; Syringe services programs.
© 2022. The Author(s).