Examining the U.S. Opioid Crisis: Part 1

lradick March 8, 2018
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Opioid abuse and addiction is a global epidemic, and the United States has not escaped the ravaging effects. Healthcare organizations from every part of the country have been affected by the consequences of escalating prescriptions to highly addictive opioid pharmaceuticals.

Not the First Time in History

In understanding the current crisis, it’s important to remember that this is not the first opioid epidemic to strike the United States. At the end of the 19th century, the open availability of Diacetylmorphine, or heroin, resulted in high rates of addiction. Eventually, government efforts to curtail the sale of these drugs and educate healthcare providers about the risks successfully stemmed the epidemic.

Repeated Patterns of Overprescribing

Surita Rao, MD, FASAM, associate professor, psychiatry, University of Connecticut School of Medicine/UConn Health, and director of the university’s Psychiatry Residency Program, points out that the journey toward today’s epidemic bears similarities to the heroin epidemic that occurred more than 100 years ago. She shares, “With the current epidemic, pharmaceutical companies aggressively marketed opioid pain medications, while heavily downplaying their addictive potential.”

Today’s epidemic also has been further complicated by governmental edicts aimed at controlling patient pain, according to experts. “When pain became the ‘fifth vital sign,’ and financial penalties were levied on healthcare organizations for failing to control pain adequately, the healthcare industry responded quickly and decisively by assessing for pain in hospitals and prescribing more powerful and inexpensive medications,” states Stephen M. Merz, FACHE, president and CEO, Maine Behavioral Healthcare. He adds, “As a colleague remarked, ‘When did we start routinely giving opiates to patients who visited the dental office for a major procedure or extraction?’”

Not New News

The U.S. opioid crisis isn’t new. In fact, the epidemic has been going on for several years. In an article published in the UConn Health Journal, Rao shared that from 1997 to 2013, the number of opioid prescriptions nearly tripled, soaring from 76 million to 207 million. In addition, Americans consume almost 100 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin) and 81 percent of the world’s oxycodone. Sadly, the majority of people addicted to or overdosing from opioids were first given a prescription by a physician.

In battling this devastating crisis, are there regional factors driving opioid abuse and unseen costs to this epidemic? ACHE will further explore this critical issue in our next post on Inside Congress. Subscribe here.

Interested in learning more? Both Rao and Merz will be speaking at ACHE’s 2018 Congress on Healthcare Leadership during the Wednesday Hot Topic Session 2, “Opioid Misuse and Addiction: A Contemporary American Tragedy.”

Please note that this blog post was updated on March 9, 2018.
Category: Thought Leadership
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