How physicians can reverse the opioid crisis


In about 2002, Dr. Gary Franklin realized the state of Washington might have a problem.

A big problem.

A state resident who’d suffered a back sprain and filed a workers’ compensation claim died 2 years later – not from heart disease or cancer or stroke, but from an unintentional prescription opioid overdose, recalled Dr. Franklin, medical director of the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.


“I had never seen anything so sad,” he said.

The case prompted the neurologist and his colleagues to review Washington state workers’ compensation claims. What they uncovered was a local trend that would explode into a national scourge: a marked increase in opioid poisonings among Washington state residents with everyday aches and pains who, in the past, would never have been prescribed opioids.

The gateway drug turned out to be oxycodone (OxyContin), which was heavily marketed at the time as a safe choice for pain relief with little abuse potential. Purdue Pharma has since paid a $600 million federal fine for deceptive marketing.

“This is the worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history,” said Dr. Franklin, also a research professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. “It was made by modern medicine, and it’s up to modern medicine to turn it around.”

For the United States to recover from the opioid crisis, Dr. Franklin said, the medical community must reduce oral opioid prescriptions for noncancer pain. Others interviewed for this story said doctors also have to overcome their aversion to in-office addiction treatment, and find new options for everyday chronic pain.

The first step is “to forget everything you were told in 1999,” said Dr. Franklin. That includes the notions that addiction is rare, opioids are indicated for noncancer chronic pain, and doses should be increased if patients become tolerant.

Those messages led to overprescribing, which in turn “led to an oversupply problem that’s feeding misuse and diversion. It’s only recently that it has become a heroin problem; the vast majority of heroin users these days start on prescription opioids,” he said.

The Washington workers’ comp claims data triggered “a complete rethinking of our approach to chronic pain and a shift to other treatment strategies,” said Dr. David Tauben, chief of pain medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Dr. Gary Franklin

Dr. Gary Franklin

In 2007, Washington became one of the first states to issue opioid treatment guidelines, which are updated regularly. Among other steps, prescribers were urged to limit doses and durations.

Since then, the state has seen a nearly 40% reduction in prescription opioid poisonings. “We also found that with dose reductions” for back pain, headaches, and similar noncancer issues, “pain subsides, function improves, and patient satisfaction” goes up, said Dr. Tauben, who was involved in creating the guidelines.

Clamping down, pushing back

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March released similar guidelines, including a suggested 3-day limit for acute pain prescriptions and a cap of 90 morphine milligram equivalents per day for chronic noncancer pain – the amount in a single 60-mg oxycodone tablet.

Meanwhile, Food and Drug Administration officials are planning a regulatory overhaul to address opioid approval, labeling, and prescribing concerns. In many places, doctors are also facing new opioid training requirements.

The Washington state experience suggests that such efforts are likely to help reverse the opioid crisis.

It’s not about getting rid of the drugs, explained Dr. Gail D’Onofrio, chair of emergency medicine at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

“Opioids are really good for certain things,” especially cancer pain and, for a few days, acute pain. But “we’ve kind of lost our way,” Dr. D’Onofrio said. “We don’t need to give people 3 months of narcotics for a knee replacement” or 3 weeks of narcotics for a wisdom tooth extraction.

“We are all guilty” of overprescribing, and “just like everywhere else, we’ve seen the problems; every year, it’s getting worse,” she added. In response, “we are changing how we use opioids, adapting the guidelines from the CDC and other groups,” and tailoring them to different services.

Dr. David Tauben

Dr. David Tauben

At the Yale emergency department, oral opioid prescriptions are now generally limited to 3 days, except for renal colic patients, who might get a few days more. “We do not fill opioid scripts and don’t reorder them for patients.” Instead, “we talk to the prescriber and tell them what’s going on,” Dr. D’Onofrio explained.

Yale’s not alone in cutting back. After years of growth, U.S. oral opioid sales appear to be declining. In fact, in some quarters, there’s concern the clampdown will go too far.


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