We have all heard the statistics and seen the consequences of the current U.S. opioid epidemic—it’s discussed in the media, healthcare circles, the general public, and among politicians. Although about 90 Americans die every single day because of this epidemic, little progress is being made.
The fifth vital sign (pain) was regulated in 1996 as a solution to the widely held belief that doctors were undertreating patients’ pain. Physicians have complied with the mandate since, treating pain at higher rates. But now their adherence is causing them to be pin-pointed as the root of the current crisis. The truth is that there are many who ignited this fire and we all hold a piece of the blame: Doctors, patients, drug dealers, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, and the government. Determining who is to blame is not the primary issue right now—people are dying, we need a solution.
But Patients are Still in Pain
As a doctor, I will tell you that “just saying no” to a request for opioids is not a real answer. We must balance easing the pain a patient is experiencing by prescribing fewer addictive pain medications. While the latest round of lawsuits and legal fines against pharmaceutical companies may dissuade future wrongdoing, they do nothing to ease the pain of the patient desperate for relief. The truth is, pharma (like doctors) had a hand in creating this problem, and they will need to be involved as we begin finding this balance.
As it stands, doctors do not have enough options to treat chronic pain syndromes; when healthcare providers were polled by Platform Q Health asking “what solution would have the longest lasting positive impact on our current crisis,” the plurality (approximately 46%) selected “development and access to new, non-addicting pain medications” from the list of choices provided. Doctors are asking for new, safe, non-addicting, and effective pain medications so they can help patients and prescribe fewer opioids—and we must stand with and support pharmaceutical companies that rise to the task of making us real alternatives.
While developing new non-addicting pain medications is a needed fix to the crisis, it is not the only one. Large-scale as well as focused education is crucial. The general public is becoming increasingly more aware of the epidemic through media coverage, but we need to provide accurate information. Clinicians need more training in recognizing those at risk of developing an opioid addiction and in how to better treat chronic pain patients. Patients and the general public need accurate education into this crisis. They must be able to understand the risks of these medication as well as be alert to danger signs in their family and friends. Yes, pharma needs to provide better tools to treat pain, but we all need to be extra vigilant.
While we look to the future in preventing further lives affected and lost, we need to remember the millions that are already victims. We have already failed them and we will continue to fail unless we change our methods: Better medications and more education.