A heroin abuser left for dead in Malad.
A military veteran’s tough road to recovery.
A Treasure Valley physician on trial for running a “pill mill.”
The death of a football star in Pocatello.
What do all of these headlines have in common? Opioid abuse.
Opioids are prescription medications like hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab), oxycodone (Oxycontin), fentanyl (Duragesic) and codeine (Tylenol #3). Heroin is an illegal opioid. These medications help control pain, but this comes with a price: They may cause physical and psychological dependence, and addiction. It’s not a “mind over matter” issue and goes against the Idaho way of “toughen up, be strong, have faith.” The societal stigma is that addiction is solely based on poor choices. Our friends and family don’t choose to be addicts; it happens because these drugs are powerful and dramatically affect brain biology.
Most have seen the statistics in the media. An Idahoan dies once every 39 hours from drugs, today most of these are related to opioids. Not meth, not marijuana, not cocaine. One-sixth of Idaho teens have taken a prescription drug without a doctor’s prescription. Nearly all new heroin users were abusing prescription opioids before switching to heroin. Everyone knows someone who has been impacted by this problem, and it frequently starts with a well-meaning prescription.
The problem of prescription drug abuse is complex and requires thoughtful solutions.
Prescribers need the tools and resources to manage patients with chronic pain. Pharmacists can work closely with prescribers to identify potential diversion and misuse. Communication among health care providers is key. Our health departments recognize this issue is critical to public health. They are working to improve access to education and resources for patients and the health care team.
Patients need to participate as well. Surgeries, cancer and injuries all hurt. In many cases the total elimination of pain is not possible, so we must focus on physical function and mental wellness. Patients can also help by not sharing medications, locking them up, and disposing of old prescriptions. Local police departments have programs for collecting leftover medications.
While law enforcement is working to decrease drug trafficking, drug courts and diversion programs can reduce repeat offenders and keep those suffering from opioid abuse clean. Good Samaritan laws allow for friends and families to request help for those who overdose without fear of prosecution. Getting opioid antidotes, like naloxone, into the hands of first responders is critical. The Idaho State Office of Drug Policy and Board of Pharmacy have championed efforts to make this life-saving medication more available.
Finally, the will to fund substance abuse treatment programs must come from our politicians and insurers. Accessible, affordable treatment options can be created to provide the sufferers of prescription drug abuse with the skills needed to recapture their lives and families, and again contribute to society.
It was once said, “one death is a tragedy; one million a statistic.” The tragedy of prescription drug abuse affects us all and, like most societal problems, it will require us all to find solutions.
Rex W. Force, Pharm.D., is a pharmacist and associate dean for clinical research in the Division of Health Sciences at Idaho State University.