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Research Summary

Opioid Maintenance Therapy Saves Lives

Opioid-dependent patients are 13 times more likely to die than their age- and sex-matched peers in the general population. To examine predictors of long-term mortality, Australian researchers conducted a 10-year follow-up study of 405 heroin-dependent patients who had participated in a randomized trial comparing methadone and buprenorphine.

  • Overall mortality was 8.8 deaths per 1000 person-years of follow-up (0.66 during opioid maintenance treatment and 14.3 while out of treatment).
  • Each additional opioid maintenance treatment episode lasting more than 7 days decreased mortality by 28%.
  • Subjects who were using more heroin at baseline had a 12% lower mortality rate overall, likely because they spent more time in opioid maintenance treatment.


Often overlooked in the controversy over opioid substitution therapy is the reality that opioid dependence has a high fatality rate. The current study highlights that opioid maintenance treatment saves lives. The selection of the treatment episode as greater than 7 days strongly suggests that opioid maintenance, not detoxification, reduces mortality. The time is right to promulgate opioid maintenance therapy with either buprenorphine or methadone as the standard-of-care, first-line treatment for opioid dependence.

Peter D. Friedmann, MD, MPH


Gibson A, Degenhardt L, Mattick RP, et al. Exposure to opioid maintenance treatment reduces long-term mortality. Addiction. 2008;103(3):462–468.