How to Attack the Opioid Crisis
The vastness of the opioid crisis is all around us:
- 259 million opioid prescriptions are made every year.
- 91 Americans die every day of opioid overdose.
- Workplace costs of prescription opioid use are more than $25 billion, driven by lost earnings from premature death, reduced compensation or lost employment and healthcare costs.
It’s time to take action.
As with any large-scale, complex phenomenon, there is no silver bullet. But a framework from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests three areas where we should focus our efforts: preventing new cases of opioid addiction, identifying opioid-addicted individuals early and ensuring access to effective opioid addiction treatment. We believe these areas must be attacked from a variety of clinical and operational angles.
From the clinical side, the emphasis has to be largely around better clinical training and urinary drug testing (UDT). A generation of doctors has been raised based on a curriculum emphasizing the need to manage pain aggressively. Retraining physicians on best practices is needed to reinforce safe opioid prescribing patterns. Research from Utah has shown that physician education on recommended opioid prescribing practices was associated with improved prescription patterns, including 60% to 80% fewer prescriptions for long-acting opioids for acute pain. When an opioid is prescribed, the use of UDT is a cost-effective way to monitor treatment compliance and drug misuse.
To address from the operational side, we need evidence-based opioid prescription guidelines in place and systems to track opioid prescriptions and adherence to guidelines. Further, we must ensure access to effective opioid addiction treatment.
Many health organizations and state health systems are aggressively adopting pain treatment guidelines that clearly lay out when opioids should and should not be used. And the preliminary results of implementing these guidelines are promising. For example, the introduction of opioid prescribing guidelines in the Washington state workers’ compensation system was associated with a decline in opioid prescriptions, the average morphine equivalent doses prescribed and the number of opioid-related deaths.
Prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP) allow for health systems to analyze opioid prescribing data to find potentially inappropriate prescribing behavior and illegal activity. For example, using its PDMP, New York City found that 1% of prescribers wrote 31% of the opioid prescriptions.
While prevention of initial opioid exposure is important, the treatment of opioid addiction is an important safety net when prevention fails. Pharmacotherapies including methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone are options for routine care of opioid dependence, but they are still in the early stages of the adoption cycle.
The foundation to address the clinical and operational approaches to opioid epidemic is two-fold:
- A strong system to determine what’s acceptable through well-defined, evidence-based guidelines; and
- A system to use these guidelines and trigger the right actions through processes and technology.
The next article will address the nature of these two systems.