While many Americans find it difficult to agree with President Donald Trump on some issues, few can disagree with his pronouncement that opioid misuse is a national crisis.
Every day, nearly 100 Americans die from an opioid overdose, including prescription opioids and heroin, totaling more than 33,000 tragedies every year.
For patients with acute conditions, doctors and other clinicians nationwide have tended to give prescriptions with more opioid pills than necessary. When healing occurs and the pain passes, the patient often has unused medications.
Unused medications become a risk for harmful or unhealthy use. Some studies have shown that two-thirds of all opioids misused and abused come from family members or friends—80% of heroin users began by using prescription opioids.
Few people in the nation are unaffected by the crisis, directly or indirectly. One of my fellow caregivers at Intermountain recently shared with me the story of her son who became addicted to opioids.
The story began when her son admitted he was taking opioids. He got treatment—got sober, got a job and resumed college classes, but three months later he was using again. His drug use never included getting a prescription for painkillers. Instead, he got prescription opioids from the street and was spending at least $200 a day on the drugs.
He re-entered treatment in an attempt to stop using opioids and become sober. But this time he left treatment early and died two weeks later from an overdose. The date was May 15, 2014, and he was 26 years old.
"I miss my son Billy; he is loved," my colleague shared with me. "My life has changed, and a piece of my heart is missing. I look in the newspaper every Sunday and see we are losing a whole generation of children. These are human beings, people who were at one time healthy. They are someone's child, brother, sister, son, daughter, friend. And I don't want my son to be forgotten," she said.
It's time for medical institutions and individuals to take additional action and boldly address this crisis.
I'm glad that I can say that at Intermountain Healthcare, we've set an ambitious goal to cut the number of opioid tablets per prescription for acute pain by 40%, or 5 million fewer pills annually. Physicians can and will prescribe the necessary pain medications, but with a focus on supplying the appropriate number of pills to match the condition.
To achieve the 40% reduction, Intermountain has already provided training to about 2,500 caregivers within our system, with plans to expand training to additional prescribers in Utah and Idaho communities. Intermountain is adding prompts and standardized orders into its electronic health records to help reduce the number of tablets prescribed.
This initiative is part of our ongoing efforts to tackle the opioid epidemic. We have joined with community partners and state government agencies to encourage safe disposal of unused medications and education regarding the dangers of opioids. Secure community drop boxes were installed in all Intermountain pharmacies in early 2015. To date, 15,000 pounds of medications have been safely disposed of there. We have also funded other drop boxes with community partners and continue to add additional locations as needs are identified.
Individuals also play an important role in this issue. I encourage everyone to speak with their doctor about opioid risks and alternative options for pain management.
Our nation can't wait any longer. We all need to act now.
Dr. Marc Harrison is president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare.