How doctors, patients, employers and insurers can help

By Kari Williamson, RN, LNCC, CCM

For decades, doctors prescribed opioids to fix their patient’s chronic pain. In reality, for some, opioids just made their lives worse, leading to addiction, escalating drug use and even death.

The numbers behind what’s being called an “epidemic,” which I wrote about in this month’s edition of Property Casualty 360, are stark. Opioids were involved in the deaths of more than 60 percent of people who died from a drug overdose in 2014, a year when more people died from overdoses than ever before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths from opioids has nearly quadrupled, says the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

To address the issue, the Obama administration in March announced the federal government’s first coordinated plan for reducing the burden of chronic pain. And, this summer, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy sent a letter to every doctor in the country, asking them to “turn the tide” on the opioid crisis.

“Many of us were even taught — incorrectly — that opioids are not addictive when prescribed for legitimate pain,” Dr. Murthy wrote. “The results have been devastating.”

Doctors are taking a new look at how how they can curb opioid use – and abuse. No longer using opioids as a regular course of action; strictly limiting the number of pills and refills; searching for other therapies and medications; and checking with their state’s prescription drug management program database all are proven ways to limit opioid prescriptions.

But the hard work to defeat this epidemic doesn’t fall only on them.

Patients must be aware of the dangers of opioids; always take the lowest dose; and be ready to try alternative therapies to manage their pain.

Employers should seek out an expanded drug testing panel; ask insurers and providers to look out for warning signs that a patient is abusing opioids; and create a safe zone where employees can ask for help.

Insurers must make sure case managers follow patients throughout treatment and their use of any opioids; insist on periodic, random drug screenings; and look out for warning signs.

I shared many more tips for doctors, patients, employers and insurers in my article in this month’s edition of Property Casualty 360.

The opioid epidemic is serious – destroying lives, families and communities. But, together, we can turn this tide around.