Opioid abuse is on the rise, and not only are more and more patients coming to drug rehab with opioid addictions, but there has also been a 137 percent increase in the number of deaths from opioids over the last 17 years. Doctors especially are demonized and blamed for the problem, and so too are pharmaceutical companies and patients, but the issue is much more complex than just being able to point the finger at a single group.
There are three main culprits at the center of the opioid crisis, and they are pain, addiction, and lack of education. People experience pain, and opioids are effective painkillers. But opioids are also highly addictive, and not all doctors have the tools needed to explain proper use, just as not all patients are properly informed about the dangers of misuse. When it comes right down to it, the solution lies in improved doctor-patient relationships, better patient health literacy, and increased communication with caregivers.
Most Addicts Start as Patients in Need
One of the most important things to remember about the opioid crisis is that most patients don’t start out as drug seekers and addicts, but are rather looking for effective pain management. The pain that patients experience is caused by a number of factors, including accidents, injuries, nerve damage, disease, and surgery. The problem is that neither doctors nor patients can know who is susceptible to addiction, because addiction has so many risk factors, including:
- Family history
- Co-occurring mental disorders
- Peer pressure
Doctors have no way of assessing each patient for all of these risk factors, and typically only have the time and resources to treat the patient for pain, rather than diagnosing possible future consequences of that treatment. It’s not uncommon for patients to develop a dependence on opioid painkillers and require higher doses to manage the pain.
The problem, however, arises when the patient starts taking more than what’s been prescribed, starts trying to get new prescriptions from different doctors, and eventually, as is sometimes the case, turns to street drugs like heroin to feed the addiction, because heroin is both cheaper and more readily available than prescription opioids.
Doctors and Patients Alike Are Responsible for Patient Health
When it comes to addiction and the proper use of opioid drugs, both doctors and patients must take responsibility, because patient literacy is at the heart of the solution. In the first place, doctors must make time to discuss the drugs with each patient, and that includes talking about the importance of proper use, possible risks, drug alternatives, and the symptoms and consequences of addiction.
For their part, patients must listen to their doctors about responsible use, understand proper dosing, be able to recognize escalating drug abuse and the signs of prescription addiction, and be willing to ask questions or ask for help. And once their patients are on painkillers, doctors must monitor patient use and be able to decide when a patient is starting to abuse the drug. Preventing addiction, therefore, is about maintaining open lines of communication between doctors and patients, and ensuring that patients are properly educated about the drugs they’re prescribed.
Addiction Education as a Key to Solving the Opioid Crisis
Proper patient education starts with doctor training, because doctors must know how to talk to patients about opioid drug use. That is the goal of projects like the patient opioid education measure (POEM) and safe and competent opioid prescribing and education (SCOPE), both of which are designed to train doctors about where there are gaps in patient knowledge about opioid use, and how to address them. The POEM project identified seven areas where patients are lacking knowledge, including:
- Prescribing policies
- Medical jurisprudence
- What to expect from the drugs (patients shouldn’t always expect pain to be completely resolved)
- Proper and safe use and handling
- Side effects
- Pharmacology and prescription directions
Physicians must not only be aware of these categories where knowledge gaps exist, but should also learn how to talk to patients about pain management, and ensure that patients have all the requisite knowledge to safely use prescription painkillers and prevent addiction.
The SCOPE project takes this measure one step further and recommends specific training for doctors that covers responsible opioid prescription practices, which will improve physician confidence when it comes to prescribing painkillers. Moreover, it has also been suggested that pill bottles come with more explicit warnings in regards to addiction and dependence, so that patients are aware of the danger even if their doctors don’t say anything.
Finding More Effective Ways to Treat Opioid Addiction
Another element in solving the opioid crisis is getting effective treatment for patients who are living with a painkiller addiction. It’s estimated that there are about a million people struggling with opioid addiction who wouldn’t be able to find an open spot in drug treatment if they sought it, and that traditional drug rehab may not even be effective for most people. Instead, the most effective and best drug rehab facilities should consider the benefits of medication and therapy to combat addiction, because medication can help to mitigate both withdrawal symptoms and cravings, and some can even prevent other drugs from having an effect on the user.
Furthermore, another important step toward treating the root causes of addiction includes providing better mental health treatment, because there’s an undeniable link between mental illness and addiction.
Finding a solution to the opioid crisis isn’t about finding someone to blame, but rather about improving patient literacy, increasing communication between doctors and patients, and giving doctors the resources they need to educate patients. Moreover, patients must also realize that it’s not always possible to completely eliminate pain, and they can’t expect doctors or drugs to work miracles.
Finally, proper addiction treatment, which may include a combination of medication, inpatient rehab, and therapy, should also address mental health issues and other causes of addiction, which is what the best drug rehab treatment centers are already doing.