U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, wrote a letter recently to every physician in America asking them to help solve the country’s opioid drug crisis by educating their patients about the risks of addiction and offering alternative treatments for pain.
The statistics are devastating. Since 1999, opioid-related deaths have increased four-fold, and in 2014 alone, a combined 29,467 people died from heroin and prescription painkiller overdoses — a 372 percent increase from the year 2000.
“Everywhere I travel, I see communities devastated by opioid overdoses,” Dr. Murthy wrote. “I meet families too ashamed to seek treatment for addiction . . . Nearly two decade ago, we were encouraged to be more aggressive about treating pain . . . This coincided with heavy marketing of opioids to doctors. Many of us were even taught — incorrectly — that opioids are not addictive when prescribed for legitimate pain.”
Included along with the Surgeon General’s letter is a cheat sheet for doctors on how to approach treating patients who suffer from chronic pain. The guide suggests first seeking alternative approaches such as physical or cognitive behavioral therapy before prescribing opioids, which should be administered slowly at the lowest possible dosage.
Such basic advice may seem intellectually insulting to a group of people who have endured years of medical school, but Dr. Murthy insists that many U.S. physicians still don’t know the addiction risks associated with pain medications such as codeine, oxycodone and morphine.
“Many clinicians have told me they weren’t aware of just how bad the problem had gotten,” Murthy told CNN. “Many were not aware of the connection between the epidemic and prescribing habits.”
An addiction specialist at the University of Washington, Dr. Gary Franklin, contends that while the Surgeon General’s letter is a step in the right direction, it is not enough just to make sure general practitioners are aware of America’s painkiller addiction.
Dr. Franklin cited a Massachusetts law passed in March which regulated opioid prescriptions by limiting first-time patients to seven-days worth of doses as a possible model for federal law and called on the doctors who pushed name-brand drugs like OxyContin in the 1990s to apologize for their irresponsible and ignorant greed.
“Where are the learned people who originally caused this problem?” Dr. Franklin asked. “Why aren’t they coming out saying, ‘Hey — we were wrong’?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78 overdose deaths occur every day in the U.S. as a result of opioid drugs and heroin use has increased by 63 percent between 2002 and 2013.
In 2013, over half a million Americans said they had used heroin in the past year or were addicted, an increase of 150 percent since 2007.
[CNN] [Time] [Image courtesy Javier Maria Trigo via DES Daughter Network]