The path to solving the country’s opioid abuse epidemic is an opportunity to recast addiction as an illness rather than a crime in many cases and to find efficient ways to treat pain, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told an auditorium of medical students and doctors Wednesday at Meharry Medical College.
Clinicians can shape the way the country thinks about addiction by changing the way they talk among themselves and to patients about opioids and addiction, Murthy said.
The prescription opioid crisis is one of the most important public health crises of our time, Murthy said. In Tennessee at least 1,263 people died from opioid overdose in 2014 — more than in car accidents or from guns.
Yet, the stigma around addiction and mental health — that it’s a character flaw or moral defect — impacts the way people seek or receive care.
“We have to change that. We have to help the country see that it’s … a chronic disease like diabetes or heart disease. If we help people see that it will make it easier for folks to come forward,” Murthy said. “It will also make it easier for communities to support treatment programs in their neighborhoods.”
Murthy said it’s become clear that the dramatic increase in the number of prescriptions for opioids has contributed to the epidemic.
A variety of measures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and insurance companies are aimed at influencing the habits of clinicians who write prescriptions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is requiring opioids to have black box warning labels on pill bottles as an additional measure to warn providers and patients of the potential risks.
In Tennessee more than half — 55 percent — of those who abuse painkillers get them from a friend or relative who has a prescription, according to a 2014 report from the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Seventeen percent have their own prescription.
The challenge for many clinicians has been that they lack the training to treat pain effectively and the support to identify and treat addiction, which is something that can be changed, Murthy said on the latest stop of his “Turn The Tide Rx” tour.
In July Murthy will send a letter to the 1.2 million opioid prescribers urging them to change their habits. Federal officials will include a pocket card that clinicians can slip into their white coat pockets as a guide to alternatives.