Over 250,000 people in the United States have died from opioid overdoses in the past 15 years.
An average of 43,982 people die annually because of opioids, which amounts to a shocking 120 deaths per day. These deaths are largely preventable, but our nation has done little in the way of intervention. The American Medical Association (AMA) can no longer ignore the mounting and senseless loss of life in this nation, so on February 17, 2016 the AMA president finally made a statement.
Dr. Steven J. Stack, MD suggests that physicians take a number of steps to deal with the opioid epidemic. First of all, Stack is pushing for increased physician registration and use of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs). He urges healthcare professionals everywhere to look into their state’s particular monitoring program when treating a patient for whom controlled substances could be prescribed. Utilizing these programs, he argues, will at the very least provide information and advice regarding prescriptions for a particular patient.
Stack goes on to argue that physicians must start enhancing their education and training about safe opioid prescription practices. The dangers of addiction and overdose are well documented at this point; medical professionals cannot continue to prescribe opioids in a casual and frequent manner. There is plenty of research on treatment alternatives, and there are plenty of continuing education seminars on safe and appropriate prescribing. A lack of education about opioids is an unacceptable excuse for putting patient lives in danger.
Stack also suggests that physicians should seek training to provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for substance use disorders. It is not enough to write patients a referral for an addiction specialist; medical professionals in all fields need to learn how to recognize whether or not their patients are struggling with substance use. Physicians should also be educated in intervention techniques and coping strategies to mediate the drug use before it leads to fatal consequences. Primary care physicians especially should engage in these MAT training programs to increase access to treatment and ideally halt addiction in its early stages.
For addictions that have already moved past the early stages, Stack recommends co-prescription of opioids with the overdose reversal drug, naloxone. Physicians have a moral obligation to consider patient safety as a top priority; in today’s world, that means prescribing the antidote along with the drug.
As a final note, Stack urges medical professionals to stay vocal against the stigma of addiction. People don’t make a conscious decision to become an addict; addiction is a disease and must be addressed as such. In order to help spare people from addiction, physicians must thoroughly weigh the risks and benefits of opioid treatment for each patient. They must not be swayed by drug-seeking behaviors, and should only prescribe opioids when they are absolutely necessary. By following Stack’s advice, medical professionals across the nation should be able to significantly affect change in the fight against opioid abuse.
Barthwell, Andrea. “Appropriate Urine Drug Testing in Substance Use Disorders: Clinical Consensus Recommendations” PowerPoint presentation. Two Dreams, Oak Park, IL. 22 Aug 2015.