As doctors, we all took an oath when we graduated from medical school to “do no harm” to patients. It is, therefore, our duty to speak up and take action when there is an opportunity to prevent harm and improve patient care, safety and well-being. On average, the opioid crisis is killing more Americans on a monthly basis than traumatic injuries. It is time for the medical community to raise its voice even more loudly in support of proven technology that helps curb this crisis.
This month, California Governor Jerry Brown became the latest state lawmaker to embrace electronic prescribing for controlled substances (EPCS) — joining nearly a dozen other states that have passed legislation mandating that health care providers and pharmacies use the technology. The Golden State law was signed at the same time the U.S. Senate passed a bill requiring e-prescriptions for any reimbursement under Medicare Part D.
Clearly, EPCS is emerging as a key tool in the fight against opioid abuse. And legislators aren’t alone in driving the trend — corporations are playing a key role as well. Walmart, one of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains, is requiring EPCS by January 1, 2020. In their press release, it was noted that “E-prescriptions are proven to be less prone to errors, they cannot be altered or copied and are electronically trackable.”
My second foray into Suboxone treatment has evolved in a way I had not expected, but I think I have stumbled onto something profound:
Almost six months into our in-house clinic’s existence, I have found myself prescribing and adjusting treatment for about half of my MAT patients for co-occurring anxiety, depression, bipolar disease and ADHD as well as restless leg syndrome, asthma and various infectious diseases.
Years ago, working in a mental health clinic, we had strict rules to defer everything to each patient’s primary care provider that wasn’t strictly related to Suboxone treatment. One problem was that many of our patients there didn’t have a medical home or had difficulty accessing services. Another problem was that primary care providers unfamiliar with opioid addiction treatment were uncomfortable prescribing almost anything to patients on Suboxone.
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:
States imposing limits on prescribing and dispensing, mandating education and other innovations (for example, Massachusetts’ first-in-the nation opioids law (including the first state law limiting most opioid prescriptions to a seven-day supply), enacted in 2015, with a follow-up law enacted in 2016 that among other things offers a system for recording and communicating a voluntary opiate “opt-out” for individuals); and limiting pharma payments to physicians in order to discourage incentives for high-prescriber status (current proposal in New Jersey)
Licensure and certification bodies imposing limits on prescribing and dispensing (state boards of registration in medicine, e.g., Ohio) and articulating management and operations frameworks for implementing those limits (Joint Commission)
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).