The “opioid epidemic” has become, perhaps, the most talked-about health crisis of the 21st century. It is a pervasive topic of discussion in the health literature and beyond, written about on the front pages of national newspapers and even mentioned in presidential state-of-the-union addresses.
As practicing physicians, we are all too familiar with the ills of chronic opioid use and have dealt with the implications of the crisis long before the issue attracted the public’s attention. In many ways, we have felt alone in bearing the burdens of caring for patients on chronic controlled substances. Until this point it has been our sacred duty to determine which patients are truly in need of those medications, and which are merely dependent on or – even worse – abusing them.
Health care providers have been largely blamed for the creation of this crisis, but we are not alone. Responsibility must also be shared by the pharmaceutical industry, health insurers, and even the government. Marketing practices, inadequate coverage of pain-relieving procedures and rehabilitation, and poorly-conceived drug policies have created an environment where it has been far too difficult to provide appropriate care for patients with chronic pain. As a result, patients who may have had an alternative to opioids were still started on these medications, and we – their physicians – have been left alone to manage the outcome.
Recently, however, health policy and public awareness have signaled a dramatic shift in the management of long-term pain medication.Significant legislation has been enacted on national, state, and local levels, and parties who are perceived to be responsible for the crisis are being held to task. For example, in August a landmark legal case was decided in an Oklahoma district court. Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals was found guilty of promoting drug addiction through false and misleading marketing and was thus ordered to pay $572 million to the state to fund drug rehabilitation programs. This is likely a harbinger of many more such decisions to come, and the industry as a whole is bracing for the worst.
Physician prescribing practices are also being carefully scrutinized by the DEA, and a significant number of new “checks and balances” have been put in place to address dependence and addiction concerns. Unfortunately, as with all sweeping reform programs, there are good – and not-so-good – aspects to these changes. In many ways, the new tools at our disposal are a powerful way of mitigating drug dependence and diversion while protecting the sanctity of our “prescription pads.” Yet, as with so many other government mandates, we are burdened with the onus of complying with the new mandates for each and every opioid prescription, while our EHRs provide little help. This means more “clicks” for us, which can feel quite burdensome. It doesn’t need to be this way. Below are two straightforward things that can and should occur in order for providers to feel unburdened and to fully embrace the changes.