If you read our blog regularly, you’ll know that the opioid epidemic is a major problem in the US, and that many people who abuse opioids often end up in the arms of heroin. However, the story doesn’t end there. The effects that heroin and opioid addiction is having on the nation is starting to show up more frequently in the news, in a multitude of forms. By looking at the individual stories and fitting together the different bits and pieces, a very disturbing image begins to take shape. Let’s take a look.
Opioid Addiction Is Affecting Everyone – Even The Experts
Texas police detective and author Nick Selby describes desperate and often futile attempts to deal with doctors and insurance companies regarding treatment of extreme pain resulting from a ruptured disc in his lower back. The medical profession, said the detective, was unable to deal with the cycles of addiction that haunted him throughout his prolonged ordeal, and he often felt like he was treated as a criminal for taking the medications the doctors themselves prescribed.
A research scientist from the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics in Baltimore, according to a Reuters report, described his “lonely” struggle with pain after a van ran over his foot. He noted that the pain after five surgeries wasn’t as hard to deal with as his journey through withdrawal from pain medicine. The report noted that “no one on his medical team could help him … the dozen doctors treating him were unable to provide him with information about how to stop taking the addictive medications.”
In a similar story in the Boston Globe, a doctor’s story reveals that even those in the medical profession are threatened with addiction. The doctor, Paul Konowitz, was a physician at Massachusetts Eye and Ear when he developed an extremely painful infection in his esophagus. The pain pills were not effective. “I thought about killing myself more than a couple of times,” the doctor said. “I couldn’t work. My professional identity was crushed. There was depression,” he added.
In a quick review: You’re supposed to trust police detectives. You’re supposed to respect research scientists. You’re supposed to hold physicians in high esteem. Yet each of these professionals was caught up on the opioid addiction epidemic – through no fault of their own.
Prescription Painkiller Addiction Needs A New Approach
Now, where this image starts to become more disturbing is how these powerful drugs are being handled. Drugs at VA hospitals are simply disappearing, and chemists are more concerned with getting their drugs on the market than preventing addiction.
The number of opioid related deaths in 2015, according to the ABC News report, was 33,091, “due in part to the surge in Fentanyl overdoses.” That report played up a more familiar story line, showing a drug bust in a seedy motel, with law enforcement officers dressed head to toe in Hazmat suits so they wouldn’t even come in contact with the deadly drug.
One could say, “We’re not in Kansas, any more.” Or you could say that the epidemic of opioid addictions and deaths is, indeed, on a rampage. It’s crossing over from the risk-taking habits of teenagers and the tragic escapism of the poor to a real boundary-ignoring epidemic, spreading into the world of doctors, scientists and policemen – all bright, capable people, who knew the risks going in, but went to their doctors with pain issues that subsequently took them into the private depths of addiction.
Nick Selby, the police detective, even described the drug busts that were part of his working life. Yet he still found himself, one day, listening to a surgeon telling him that he could take his pain away, only to be handed a prescription for 180 pills – “90 each of oxycodone and hydrocodone,” opening up both relief and another version of hell he had to endure. Clearly, previous solutions to the opioid problem are not having the desired effect.
Steps In The Right Direction
What, then, are we to make of a new drug policies adopted by states that in some cases require doctors to check drug registries before writing a prescription for risky pain medications? Every state except Missouri now has a registry-check policy. Some states mandate the practice, while others have voluntary programs.
A new study published by the journal Addictive Behaviors found that the doctors checking registries before writing prescriptions cut down on “doctor shopping” by 56%, and even saved lives. States where the registry-check was required could save 20 lives per year, while states with a voluntary registry-check policy could save half as many, the study found.
This is a step in the right direction, but the polices “aren’t a panacea,” said Nashville physician Stephen W. Patrick, who treats infants who have to go through opioid withdrawal after their mothers have taken prescribed painkillers.
The medical profession is sharply divided on how to treat chronic pain. Some doctors are dedicated to cutting back on opioid use, while others understand that people suffering from chronic pain have few if any other options.
Solving the opioid epidemic with one policy is like solving global warming with one policy. One step in the right direction does not mean we’ve made it all the way home.
“We need a comprehensive approach. It isn’t one thing that will help get us out of the opioid epidemic,” Patrick told Reuters.
The image of the opioid epidemic is a dire one, and one that won’t improve on its own. If you’re currently struggling with addiction, realize that you’re not alone. The opioid epidemic isn’t going away anytime soon, but you can still find personal treatment and start your recovery story, even before the country does.