Martha’s doctor prescribed an opioid painkiller for her chronic back pain. It wasn’t long before she built a tolerance. With a new prescription for an increased dose, it’s easy to see how she became an addict.
Martha was a grade-school teacher who just wanted to live without pain.
Tom started experimenting with drugs from a young age. He knew enough to stay away from the hard stuff, until he had pain that he couldn’t handle. Tom didn’t have insurance, but he heard about OxyContin from a friend and decided to give it a shot. Tom traded pain for opioid addiction and eventually became a heroin addict.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see where these stories went wrong, but it wasn’t so easy for the people who lived these stories. Now that we hear tales like these on the nightly news, it’s time to do something about it.
We can all learn and grow, but it’s the healthcare workers that may have the biggest impact on the opioid crisis.
We need to change the way we prescribe drugs
If Martha’s doctor had prescribed an alternative pain reliever, she might have been able to manage her pain without becoming addicted.
Because opioids are so addictive, they shouldn’t be used for chronic pain. Instead, healthcare professionals can address the root cause of chronic illness whenever possible. Because it’s very easy to build a tolerance to prescription painkillers, an opioid prescription for chronic pain is a recipe for addiction.
Practitioners should first prescribe alternative options for pain relief, and they should be prepared to counsel patients on managing pain. In cases of extreme acute pain, opioids may be given alongside other pain relievers to reduce the likelihood of addiction.
We should continue to educate ourselves and others
If Tom had a better understanding of the risks, he might have never taken the OxyContin.
In the thick of the current opioid crisis, healthcare workers have a responsibility to educate their communities about the dangers of opioid abuse. Knowledge truly is power, and fewer people may fall victim to addiction when they’re armed with the facts.
Addiction takes hold at different times for different people, and some people are more susceptible than others. Emergency room doctors and nurses see the faces of addiction firsthand, but they typically only reach these people after they have become addicted. If they can share their knowledge with susceptible groups, we may see fewer people falling victim to addiction.
Learn how to identify patterns of abuse
In addition to changing the way we prescribe opioids, we can also better identify the signs and patterns of abuse. If healthcare workers can ask patients about drug use and behavior more frequently, we may see more cases of earlier intervention.
Additionally, doctors should become experts at identifying when a patient is abusing their prescriptions. It may become obvious if they are asking for refills or increased doses too often, but doctor shopping is another sign. Doctors should investigate whether their patients have ever had opioid prescriptions before ever writing one. This may help keep addicts from getting prescriptions to feed their addiction.
We need to make treatment more accessible
Those in healthcare policy know that we have a long way to go before we can say we’re successfully addressing the opioid epidemic. Patients are typically left to seek treatment from a private facility where there may be long waitlists and exorbitant costs. We need more affordable outpatient options that allow people to undergo comprehensive treatment while retaining their jobs and homes.
There are many cracks in the system that have allowed this epidemic to take hold, and it’s time we start filling them. Each of us has a responsibility to learn from our own experiences and change our ways.
Our focus should be to prevent addiction whenever possible. If we can’t prevent addiction, we should be trying to address it in its early stages. Healthcare professionals can act now to prescribe fewer opioids, ensure patients are handling them responsibly and look for the signs of addiction. This alone will not end the opioid crisis, but it may help us see fewer addicts. And that’s progress we can all be proud of.