The opioid epidemic in the United States is still in full swing. For the second year in a row, the life expectancy in the U.S. actually dropped, largely due to the 21 percent spike in mortality from drug overdoses. Historically, life expectancy has risen consistently year over year, with the last exception being from 1962 and 1963. More than 64,070 people died from overdoses in 2016, and 2017 doesn’t look to be much better (though final numbers have not been tallied).
Fortunately, hospitals and healthcare organizations-who many critics blame for encouraging the development of the epidemic-are fighting back against it.
The Prescription Problem
One of the biggest contributors to the opioid epidemic is the number of prescriptions written for opioid pain medication in the United States; between 1999 and 2014, sales of prescription opioids has increased by 400 percent, all while the amount of pain reported by individuals remains the same. Rates of prescription opioid abuse and overdose deaths have increased in correlation with this trend. Additionally, states that have a higher number of opioid prescriptions per capita tend to have higher addiction and abuse rates as well. Accordingly, many authorities have recommended the best course of action to begin remedying the problem is cutting back on the number of prescriptions written for opioid medications.
How Hospitals Are Fighting Back
On the surface, the problem seems simple; all hospitals have to do is stop prescribing opioid medications, and the overdose epidemic will slowly decline. But there are a few complications preventing hospitals from making this move. For starters, experienced doctors and staff who are already used to prescribing certain medications to treat certain patients find it hard to change their habits. There also aren’t many viable alternatives for addressing high levels of pain in patients.
Fortunately, some hospitals are finding alternative solutions for pain reduction that don’t rely on the prescription or use of opioid medications. For example, one six-month program in Colorado helped hospitals reduce their use of opioid medications by as much as 36 percent, resulting in a total decrease of 35,000 opioid doses in circulation. Some of the alternative solutions include injections of nonopioid medications and patches with medications like ketamine and lidocaine, neither of which is as addictive as an opioid option.
The pilot program shows that it’s possible to give patients ample pain relief outcomes, and plenty of suitable options for treatment, without the need for opioid medications. The next phase of the solution is then convincing administrators, doctors, nurses, and staff of all levels that it’s in everyone’s best interest to pursue these alternatives.
Of course, these hospital actions aren’t the only ways that people are fighting back against the crisis. Over the past several years, there have also been more organizations dedicated to serving people who are already struggling with addictions; to be effective, the epidemic needs to be approached from both a proactive side and a reactive side, preventing things from getting worse while still treating people currently suffering from its ill effects. For example, the number of addiction intervention specialists has increased significantly, and more medical professionals are encouraging addicts to seek help or treatment.
Because the opioid epidemic is a complex problem with complex roots, it’s nearly impossible to gauge how any single preventative measure could impact it-or when that effect might take hold. Still, with more hospitals, medical professionals, and addiction treatment specialists realizing the scale of the problem and working to address it, it’s only a matter of time before progress is made.