President Obama’s promise to dedicate $100 million to fight opiate addiction is welcome news in a country where addiction has become epidemic. One of his focal points will address the physicians and other prescribers who write orders for pain pills. People who play around with prescription drug abuse are 40 times more likely to become dependent on heroin, so it’s important to put a stop to excessive use of narcotic pain pills.
Prescription drug abuse begins innocently, with most people seeing a family doctor to get some relief from a painful accident, injury, or illness. When the practitioner prescribes something like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, or one of the many other pain pills on the market, the patient thinks the pills cannot possibly cause harm if they were ordered by this most trusted person.
Some people, of course, avoid a trip to the doctor, especially if a family member says, “Here, take some of these pills, I don’t need them and they’ll help you.” It’s easy to borrow a loved one’s medications—except you never pay it back. You just keep asking for more, begging for more, and then sneaking some more. Eventually, you begin doctor shopping. You go to that doctor, but you hide that you’re guilty of prescription drug abuse. You get some pain pills from your primary care provider, and then you go to the dentist, and then you go to the orthopedist or other specialist. It would amaze the ordinary person that someone can accumulate that many pain pills.
If you saw Meryl Streep waving around her bag of pain pills in August: Osage County, you’d be surprised to learn that some people actually have that many pills. You would not at all be surprised, of course, if you are struggling with prescription drug abuse or if you live with someone who is fighting that battle. You already know that large quantities of pain pills make people desperate, deceitful, and dedicated to their misery. They are people who have lost their way.
Doctors Fight Back
So it’s a relief to know that some 25 national and state medical societies plus physician specialty groups have joined together in the fight against prescription drug abuse. They have formed the AMA Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse, and their website reminds prescribers that more than 8,000 Americans died in 2013 from heroin-related overdoses, and over 16,000 Americans died from an opioid-related overdose.
Statistics are shocking, and they are also numbing. We all get tired of having numbers thrown at us. This many people used this. This many people died of that. How many ways are there to compare numbers? Why are the numbers so different? One of the frustrating things is how old statistics can be by the time they reach us. We hear about those 24,000 people mentioned on the AMA Task Force website, and we realize that those deaths occurred in 2013. Why are we just hearing about them now?
But it takes time to gather numbers, crunch them, and get them ready for public consumption. And medical researchers, being people who care deeply about opiate addiction and the epidemic of prescription drug abuse, crunch those numbers in ways that make sense to them. That’s why we hear such variegated types of statistics presented in so many ways. Just Google drug abuse statistics and you’ll come up with these factoids:
- Heroin overdose deaths quadrupled from 2002 to 2013, and they doubled just between the years of 2011 and 2013.
- Each day, 120 Americans show up on morgue slabs because of overdoses of all types.
- About 22 million Americans use prescription drugs illegally.
- About 20,000 Americans die from prescription drug abuse each year.
- Americans consume 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin), 80 percent of its oxycodone (Percocet, OxyContin), and 65 percent of its hydromorphone (Dilaudid).
The numbers go on and on.
The Hoax to Promote Prescription Drug Abuse
Pharmaceutical companies make tremendous profits from selling pain pills; why should they tell doctors not to prescribe them? Dr. Celine Grounder wrote for The New Yorker in 2013 about the studies that set the groundwork for this epidemic. The first actually was a brief letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine England Journal of Medicine way back in 1980. The writer insisted that of hospitalized patients who received opiate pain pills, less than one percent of them became addicted. The second research study appeared in Pain, another medical journal, in 1986, and it presented research purporting that narcotic pain pills could be used not just for cancer pain but for all types of pain.
Dr. Grounder also tells us that companies like Purdue, Johnson & Johnson, and Endo Pharmaceuticals supplied funds for starting up physician organizations such as the American Academy of Pain Management and the American Pain Society. The foxes gained entrance to the hen house.
New Recommendations for Providers
Doctors are refusing to sit back and watch patients die from prescription drug abuse. The AMA Task Force now advises physicians and other prescribers to ask about a patient’s prescription history if the patient comes to the office with a need for prescription pain medication. If you’ve been in treatment for prescription drug abuse, you may already be familiar with the prescription drug monitoring programs that exist in most states. Before writing a prescription for you, the doctor can access a website that provides information on what prescriptions you’ve shown up with at pharmacies.
Doctors will also be asking their patients to sign authorizations to exchange information with the patient’s other healthcare providers. They are on the lookout not only for evidence of pain medication abuse but for all types of prescription drug abuse—benzodiazepines, for example, or amphetamines.
They are also advised to take a long, hard look at their own prescribing patterns. What medications do they prescribe most often? What diagnoses convince them to pull out the prescription pad?
They can also opt to receive prompts to prescribe naloxone for those patients who possibly may be abusing prescription drugs.
Doing Your Part: Heed the Danger
Did you know that in 2007 three of the top executives at Purdue Pharma pled guilty to misleading physicians, other prescribers, and even the Food and Drug Administration about the safety of OxyContin addiction? Janssen Pharmceuticals has adopted a transparency policy so that people can look up on its website if it has made payments to prescribers, funded medical education grants, or made charitable donations that could promote use of its products.
If you are the patient, you must be aware of the possibility that an innocent prescription can lead to prescription drug abuse, heroin addiction, and even death. If you are the person watching a loved one become addicted to pain pills, it’s your responsibility to clear out your medicine cabinet. You can look up drug take-back sites in your community on the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) website.
You can also contact your local methadone program for information on getting started in treatment. Everything starts with an assessment, no matter what program you choose, and so it’s up to you to pick up the phone and make that first call. Prescription drug abuse is no joke, and it could cost you your life.