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United to Save Lives

Man and woman looking at meds

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to join 2,250 other attendees at the 2017 National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta, put on by Operation UNITE. Billed as "the largest annual conference addressing the opioid crisis," this event brings together professionals from across the nation to discuss how to respond to the epidemic of opioid abuse, misuse and overdose.

Attendees of this summit are acutely aware of the grim statistics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 33,000 deaths in 2015 from prescription opioids and heroin. That's an average of more than 90 deaths a day of Americans from all parts of the country, all walks of life and all age groups.

As a non-health care professional, I listened for three days as advocates, researchers, providers, clinicians, law enforcement and government officials—including my HealthInsight Oregon colleagues—described efforts to reverse the current trends and save lives. I heard about many initiatives, ranging from prevention of opioid abuse and misuse to addiction services and diversion tools. Several focus areas emerged for me.

  • Reduce unneeded opioid prescribing. Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs are electronic databases that provide a complete history of controlled prescription medications given to a patient. Almost all states have implemented these programs to help physicians and pharmacists detect worrisome prescribing patterns and reduce harmful drug interactions and overprescribing.
  • Consider alternative methods to treat and manage pain. Non-pharmaceutical treatments and non-opioid medications are preferred over opioids for most painful conditions. There is good evidence that non-pharmaceutical treatments are beneficial, with low cost and minimal side effects. These treatments include physical and occupational therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic and massage therapy as well as cognitive behavioral therapy and guided meditation to redirect painful symptoms. Physicians are seeing the value of these kinds of treatments and insurers have begun paying for them. When opioids are needed to treat serious painful conditions, providers and pharmacists play an essential role in educating patients and their families about the risk of opioids and how to safely use, store and dispose of them.
  • Increase access to opioid use disorder treatments. Medicated-Assisted Treatment (MAT) incorporates medications along with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat opioid use disorders and prevent opioid overdose. Several presentations about MAT reported improved results from using methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone to slowly reduce the use of opioids, working thoughtfully with patients to reduce the risk of relapse.
  • Increase access to naloxone (NarcanTM), an antidote to opioid overdose. Great work has been done over the past year to spread knowledge about the benefits of naloxone. I found it exciting to see the rapid spread of a relatively new intervention that has been shown to save lives.

One of my biggest takeaways from the summit was the need for more education about these issues for patients, caregivers, physicians, law enforcement and the general public. Opioid dependence and addiction can be hard to talk about. Each of us needs to be able to see and understand the risk factors and warning signs, and be willing to have tough conversations that could save our own lives or the lives of people we know and love.

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