More Americans die each year from drug overdoses than in motor vehicle accidents, and the majority of those overdoses involve prescription medications. Since 1999, the number of opioid-related deaths has quadrupled with nearly 2 million Americans now diagnosed with a prescription opioid use disorder. How did we get here?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has identified several contributing factors, including a large increase in the number of prescriptions written and dispensed, greater social acceptability for using medications for different purposes and widespread consumer awareness of available medications. These factors combined have resulted in greater availability of prescription medications in general and opioids in particular.
Further, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has noted that two decades ago healthcare providers were encouraged to be more aggressive in their treatment of pain, which included prescribing more opioids to patients seeking relief. He also indicated that some clinicians were even told that opioids were not addictive when used to treat pain. Our thinking, at that time, failed us.
Today, we know the truth about the addictive nature of opioids, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued clear guidelines for prescribing opioids to reduce chronic pain. To turn the tide on this growing national concern, healthcare providers must commit to enhancing their understanding of how to properly prescribe opioids and how to treat drug addiction.
As the largest segment of the healthcare workforce, registered nurses are well-positioned to play a central role in treating and counseling individuals suffering from drug abuse. Nurses across the country have specialized in the care of those suffering with addictions, provide support to their families and understand what community services are available to assist this patient population.
Academic nursing is committed to protecting the public's health by taking decisive action to address the nation's opioid crisis. Advanced-practice registered nurses, including nurse practitioners (the third largest opioid-prescribing group for individuals with Medicare Part D, according to the CMS), are dedicated to adopting responsible prescribing practices using the evidence-based guidelines advanced by the CDC.
With the president, surgeon general and the healthcare community calling for collective action to address this serious concern, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing is partnering with its nursing colleagues to enhance the education of students in APRN programs on safe prescribing practices. For over six months now, more than 200 schools of nursing with APRN programs have pledged to educate their students on the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. The addition of this content complements the instruction APRN students are currently receiving on topics such as pain management and substance abuse.
Together, with 28 additional nursing organizations, the AACN launched a new online educational series, which serves as a resource for practicing nurses, faculty and students on opioid topics. The content of this free training includes an overview of the current need to address opioid use disorder and overdose; integrating timely content into curricula; and the CDC's new prescribing guideline. Each one-hour webinar in this series is available through the AACN's website as an archived recording at no cost, and offers continuing education credit to all who complete the training.
As the national movement to stem the opioid epidemic accelerates, APRNs and other providers must continue to ensure that individuals with pain receive safe, effective treatment. Prescribing opioids to minimize pain is still a viable option in many instances, and clinicians must be vigilant knowing the slippery slope to addiction. From academic nursing's perspective, education is the key to correcting this public health crisis.
Deborah Trautman is president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.