Reducing Opioid Abuse, A Quick Guide to Internet Resources

The opioid crisis has been upon us for years now, and we are now seeing the problem become more pervasive, with more than 90 deaths per day in the U.S. due to this scourge. The president recently said he would be declaring a public health emergency (which would free up some funds) but has not done so as of this writing. The public health threat is so persistent that it calls for responses on many levels, and those responses are coming. Some have been in place for a while, some are more recent. These responses may be broken down into a number of different categories:

The overarching goal is to eliminate the use of opiates for all but the most critical short-term needs (limiting prescriptions to a seven-day supply) and medically-appropriate chronic and palliative pain management. There are alternative pain relief drugs — and a wide variety of other treatments for pain, ranging from TENS to meditation to VR.  Taken together, the initiatives highlighted and linked to above represent a good start. Of course, we need more than a good start, as the US consumes a wildly disproportionate share of opiates compared to other countries — follow link for some facts and figures — for predictable reasons of economics, politics and culture, and we are paying a staggering price in excess morbidity and mortality and in secondary effects (the effects on family and community).

We’ve gotten to this crisis point in part through the adoption of pain as a fifth vital sign (many have laid part of the blame at the feet of the Joint Commission, though the organization takes umbrage, pointing out that it described the practice rather than endorsing it, and also noting that the growth in opioid prescriptions predated its 2001 report on pain management). If pain is a vital sign, it must be addressed, and the healthcare-industrial complex has certainly addressed it. Oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl and other opioid prescription volume went through the roof for acute pain and many, many people became addicted and have overdosed as a result. As noted in the articles linked to in the first line of this post, blame may be laid at the feet of medical journals, uncritical readers of those journals, the pharmaceutical firms that produced and marketed opioids in a manner that has led to over-prescribing and abuse, and societal and economic trends that have disenfranchised many Americans in many ways, making them more susceptible to opioid abuse.

The opportunities created by this crisis have not gone unnoticed by the capitalist class, as private equity investment in opioid addiction treatment demonstrates. (This causes me the same sort of distress as states relying on cigarette taxes for program funding; in neither case would the preferred public health outcome be seen as an unmitigated good by the green-eyeshade crowd.)

The problem is multi-dimensional, so the solution must be multi-dimensional. Initiatives by the FDA, the PBMs, by health care providers, by medical boards, by state governments, by third party payors will all have some effect, and together they have the potential to reverse the growth of opioid abuse and reduce, if not eliminate, the ongoing morbidity and mortality.

As one good example close to home for your HealthBlawger, check out the broad scope of the Massachusetts law, which has been promoted in a heartfelt way by Governor Charlie Baker. Massachusetts has a good website on the opioid crisis as well (see updates and reports here). Over two years later, it is clear that the Commonwealth is taking some positive steps forward (and follow-on legislation targeting inappropriate prescription of opioids has been enacted as well), though some parts of the law, such as the provision regarding offering counseling to patients in emergency rooms, watered down from “you will be counseled or we will hold you involuntarily for 72 hours” before it passed, have been criticized for not being particularly effective.

Some of the solutions offered around the country rely in part on technology. For example, drug-seeking patients may be prevented from obtaining medically unnecessary prescriptions thanks to sharing of data gleaned from electronic health records and made available as needed to other prescribing clinicians. (This highlights one reason that developing and maintaining interoperable electronic medical records with broad clinician access is so important; limiting access to clinicians approved by the patient would eviscerate this sort of approach to limiting opioid abuse. But the broad privacy question of who should have access to what data about a patient is one for another day.)

It is beyond the scope of this post to review each of the approaches to this crisis, but I expect that we will be hearing more about each health care system stakeholder’s experiences with these approaches in the coming months.

It will be interesting to see — and critical to track carefully so that we can know — whether the most recent round of interventions will have a real effect on the human cost of the epidemic.

9 replies »

  1. Our experience is that quite a few actually make it to the ED. Some make it to the ICU, but become organ donors.

  2. They die suddenly and unexpectedly. Most large health systems will rarely have an in-hospital death from Dilaudid use in a narcotic naive patient. Serving as the Chairman of a hospital’s Formulary Committee for 20 years, its all quite demoralizing given the high degree of tolerance in many citizens.

  3. Very real but kind of regionalized. We have quite a few in our ICUs, but especially in the hospitals that cover our poorer, rural areas. Our newest hospital is a smallish 80-100 bed hospital in an area with lots of opioid issues. My critical care guys see a lot of these folks. The hospital CEO is begging us for help with the pain patients who are opioid addicted. (Two of my critical care docs are married to ED docs. This is a common topic when we get together.)


  4. Are we sure about all this stuff? These folks are supposed to die from respiratory suppression. Where are they dying? I don’t hear in hospital meetings talk about people not breathing or suffering from dementia or strokes from brain anoxia in the ER. Are they dying at home or on the street? The CDC says that there has not been an increase in overdose deaths in commonly prescribed opiates since 2011. These prescription opiate deaths did, however, increase prior to that time; it is only in heroine and fentanyl and the not commonly prescribed opiate meds that we see overdose deaths from 2011-2015. Maybe this recent crisis is just a sudden surge in illegal street drug usage originating from the drug cartels? If this were true, all this news doesn’t have that much implication for ordinary doctoring, does it?

    From what I can gather, there are supposed to be around 32,000 to 52,000 overdose opiate deaths per year in the US. This is roughly a hundred per day. Shouldn’t we be seeing this in our hospitals and hearing hospital conversations and committee-talk about this?

    But, maybe this is true and these deaths are going on from prescribed painkillers. Why then, does the CDC say this is not recently occurring? Is some of this fake news? And why? Cui bono?

  5. My state, Ohio, is suing the pharma companies for the opiate crisis, but let’s be real, there is plenty of blame to go around, including the gov’t.

  6. This sounds very promising…does anyone here have direct experience with this approach?:
    “Vivitrol is purely an opiate blocker.  Once an individual is opiate free for approximately 7 to 10 days, Vivitrol can be given safely with no side effects.  It effectively combats opiate cravings, lasts for approximately one month and causes no further withdrawal symptoms.  Most importantly, if someone were to use an opiate while on Vivitrol, they would feel no effect. Knowing the option of getting high is not available allows a person in early recovery the time and emotional energy to focus on developing an effective recovery program.”

  7. The world-wide networks for illicit drug distribution are likely to represent a substantial root-cause of root-causes. Like it or not, protection of our borders remains an underlying theme of many ailments within our nation’s civil life. The internet may be an even stronger threat.
    Lost in all the hysteria is a nearly total absence of attention to the social capital in each community, especially its role in maintaining each community’s COMMON GOOD. Remember a very large root-cause of Unstable HEALTH among the citizens of each community is the enduring social adversities they encounter daily within their community’s civil life.