Aims Since its launch in the prescribing market in 1999 for the treatment of opiate dependence, buprenorphine has rapidly become established as an alternative to methadone treatment in the United Kingdom. In the absence of evidence of its clinical superiority over methadone, and given its high relative cost, we sought to examine the impact of buprenorphine availability on opiate treatment services in England.
Methods Quarterly buprenorphine and methadone community prescription figures were obtained for 28 Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs) in England, for the 2-year period September 2001 to September 2003. Rates of buprenorphine prescribing (as proportion of all opiate prescriptions) were examined over time by number of prescriptions and net ingredient cost.
Results Buprenorphine prescription rates increased disproportionately to methadone in all 28 SHAs. By the end of 2003 the number of buprenorphine prescriptions had increased to 23% of all opiate prescriptions, but accounted for 45% of opiate prescription costs in England. Buprenorphine prescribing rates varied substantially across different regions.
Conclusions Buprenorphine prescribing has increased dramatically and represents a disproportionately large fraction of community opiate prescribing costs. The marked regional variation suggests the need for further research and the development of national guidelines to support rational prescribing and equitable access to treatment.