Imagine a massive public health crisis in the United States that affects tens of thousands of people. Now imagine that the government had a simple tool at its disposal that could prevent this kind of physical and psychological trauma. You might think that I’m writing about America’s deadly outbreak of gun violence, which has made headlines this summer from Dayton to El Paso.
But actually I’m talking about a different crisis that affects even more people – all of them children — and which could be sharply reduced with one simple step that lacks the bitter political animus of the gun debate. The issue at hand involves babies born to mothers who used opioids during pregnancy – babies who tend to develop a condition called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS.
Experts say that state and federal governments have grossly underestimated the number of NAS babies currently born in the United States, as the addiction crisis triggered by Big Pharma’s greed in pushing painkillers refuses to fade. They say an accurate accounting would find a minimum of 250,000 children — and possibly two or three times that every year born with NAS. These kids will face chronic symptoms such as trembling and seizures, gastrointestinal problems, and an inability to sleep. Their numbers are more than eight times higher than the last official estimate from the government.
For more than a year now, I’ve been working with a team of attorneyscalled the Opioid Justice Team who are fighting for any settlement of the massive court fight pitting more than 2,000 localities against Big Pharma to include a medical monitoring fund for the estimated hundreds of thousands of kids born with NAS syndrome. But our team has also been pushing for radical measures that would prevent many of these unfortunate cases.
According the 2019 Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index, the U.S. ranks 35th out of 169 countries. Even though we are the 11th wealthiest country in the world, we are behind pretty much all developed economies in terms of health. In the Americas, not just Canada (16th) but also Cuba (30th), Chile and Costa Rica (tied for 33rd) rank ahead of us in this Bloomberg study.
To answer this layered question, we need to look at the top ranked countries in the Bloomberg Index: From first to 12th, they are Spain; Italy; Iceland; Japan; Switzerland; Sweden; Australia; Singapore; Norway; Israel; Luxembourg; and France. What are they doing right that the U.S. isn’t? In a nutshell, they embrace half a dozen critical economic and societal traits that are absent in the U.S.:
· Universal health care
· Better diet: fresh ingredients and less packaged and processed food
When it comes to access to health care, the 34 countries that are ahead of the U.S. in the Bloomberg health rankings all offer universal health care to their people. This means that preventive, primary and acute care is available to 100% of the population. In contrast, 25 – 30 million Americans do not have health care insurance, and an equal number are under insured. For 15 – 18% of our population, financial concerns about how to pay for a visit to the doctor, how to meet high insurance deductibles, or cash payments after insurance take precedence over taking care of their health. Lack of preventive care leads to visits to the emergency rooms for ailments that could have been prevented through regular primary care follow-up, at a very high cost to our health system. Note: We spent $10,700 per capita in health care in 2017, more than three as much as Spain ($3,200) and Italy ($3,400). Many Americans postpone important medical operations for years, until they reach 65 years of age, when they finally qualify for universal health care or Medicare. Lack of prevention and primary care, health interventions postponed, and the constant worry that medical costs might bankrupt one’s family: none of this is conducive to healthy lives.
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.”
I’m a pediatric oncologist, but cancer is not always the most serious problem my young patients face. Currently one of them, a 14-year-old boy, his mother, or both may be opioid addicts. I may be enabling their addiction.
Tragically, their situation is not unique. Adolescent patients are at risk for addiction from opioid pain medications just as adult patients are. But pediatric patients are overlooked in this war against opioid addiction. No policies protect them or those caring for them.
Usually pain is short-term, and only limited opioids are needed. Most providers, including those caring for children, are trained in acute pain management. Patients and providers are also protected by policies limiting the prescribed amount of opioids for acute pain.
In the environment of today’s prescription opioid epidemic, everyone is looking for someone to blame. Often, The Joint Commission’s pain standards take that blame. We are encouraging our critics to look at our exact standards, along with the historical context of our standards, to fully understand what our accredited organizations are required to do with regard to pain.
The Joint Commission first established standards for pain assessment and treatment in 2001 in response to the national outcry about the widespread problem of undertreatment of pain. The Joint Commission’s current standards require that organizations establish policies regarding pain assessment and treatment and conduct educational efforts to ensure compliance. The standards DO NOT require the use of drugs to manage a patient’s pain; and when a drug is appropriate, the standards do not specify which drug should be prescribed.
Our foundational standards are quite simple. They are:
The hospital educates all licensed independent practitioners on assessing and managing pain.
The hospital respects the patient’s right to pain management.
The hospital assesses and manages the patient’s pain.
Requirements for what should be addressed in organizations’ policies include: