More than just ‘free heroin’: Caring whilst navigating constraint in the delivery of diamorphine assisted treatment

Hannah Poulter, Tammi Walker, Danny Ahmed, Helen Moore, Fleur Riley, Graham Towl, Magdalena Harris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In 2020, drug related deaths in the United Kingdom (UK) reached the highest rate in over 25 years, with hospitalisations and deaths particularly impacting people who use illicit opioids such as heroin. Treatment systems are increasingly required to be innovative to engage the most vulnerable at risk from premature morbidity and mortality. Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT) is an alternative treatment modality for people for whom more traditional forms of opioid substitution therapy, such as methadone, have been ineffective. Middlesbrough, a town in the North-East England, was home to the first service in the UK to implement HAT outside of a clinical trial setting which closed for operation in November 2022.

Qualitative in-depth interviews with patients and health care providers (n =17) involved in the delivery of HAT were undertaken during 2021. This paper focuses on the health care provider interviews, the majority of which took place remotely. Interviews were audio recorded and thematically analysed.

Health care providers navigated multiple layers of constraint during HAT implementation and delivery. We explore this in relation to three themes: 1) Negotiating risk and safety within treatment 2) More than a prescription: care beyond diamorphine 3) Internal and external delivery barriers and impact on treatment acceptability, identity and longevity.

Negotiating and managing risks of polysubstance use was a complex task. Benefits regarding access to holistic care, improved therapeutic and social relationships were recognised by practitioners. The rigorous delivery schedule was the biggest barrier to engagement. Outside the treatment room, socio-structural factors posed additional challenges.

Despite some operational complexities, health care providers viewed HAT as an effective method of engaging a high risk population with drug treatment services, with holistic benefits for clients over and above the treatment of opioid dependency. Findings will inform advocacy and innovation for future HAT interventions in England.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104025
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Early online date14 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2023


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