The effects of the ongoing opioid crisis are widely debated in the public, yet there is a persistent need for a stronger focus on what can be done to curb its effects.
This article explores several evidence-based strategies key actors can employ to counter the effects of the opioid epidemic and discusses some interventions for the general public.
Establishing a Framework for OUD Prevention Is a Complex Issue
Journalist H.L. Mencken once claimed that “For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” This statement rings even more true when discussing the opioid crisis and potential measures to try and diminish its effects.
Addressing the opioid epidemic effectively will require a wide framework that can target the crisis at multiple levels, from pharmaceutical companies to doctors and the people who are directly impacted by this phenomenon.
Unfortunately, there are significant hurdles that make this framework more elusive than many hope:
- The cause of the opioid crisis: Though overprescribing opioids may seem like the catalyst of the epidemic, many specialists now believe this may not be the central cause of the problem after all. The social and financial motivators may be bigger contributors to drug abuse related to opioids, as is a healthcare system that values quick solutions.
- The financial toll (and who pays for it): The cost of the opioid crisis reached an estimated $1.5 trillion, and the measures designed to combat it also strain the economy. Though pharmaceutical companies have to pay out around $50 billion over the next 18 years to state and local governments, institutions and people affected will still likely have to cover much of the expenses for treatment interventions and other such measures.
- The need for multiple parties to come together: The opioid epidemic’s reach has become so massive due to systematic problems with the U.S. healthcare system, how drugs are marketed, and the quality of the regulations designed to protect the public. Turning around the epidemic would also require a systematic approach where all major actors work together to achieve the same goal.
Types of Interventions to Tackle the Opioid Crisis
There are several targeted interventions that may curb the effects of the opioid epidemic, many of which are currently unfolding all over the country.
Here’s a brief overview of the main ones, in relation to who should be the primary conductor for them:
1. At a Government Level
Inadequate regulations are deeply connected to the synthetic opioid abuse phenomenon, and government officials now employ several strategies to curb its effects:
Establishing Drug Take-Back Programs
Drug take-back programs provide a simple way for people to dispose of their unused medication. By providing such opportunities, governments can reduce the risk of people taking opioids even after they no longer need them because they still have them on hand.
However, such programs would work better if they were not limited to approved medications but included illicit ones as well. Many people with opioid prescriptions may eventually turn to illegal synthetic opioids, like heroin or fentanyl, as a way to sustain their drug habit. After they decide to get sober, these illicit drugs can remain in circulation because they get rid of them by selling them to other people.
Policies to Restrict Access to Drugs
Establishing more restrictions regarding how opioids are prescribed helps reduce the risk of these drugs being abused.
The incentives received by doctors to push these medications were a crucial component that contributed to the opioid epidemic. Prescriptions were given out even if patients could have effectively managed their pain with less potent medications.
Today, the CDC has much stricter rules regarding opioids prescribed for patients with chronic pain. Though they’re not entirely forbidden, the new rules, coupled with a better knowledge of the effects of opioid drugs, have led to a 44% reduction in the number of prescriptions between 2016 and 2019.
Prescription Drugs Monitoring Programs
Drug monitoring programs are a type of state-wide digital database that can provide healthcare providers with essential information regarding patients’ opioid prescriptions.
Reviewing this evidence can help doctors both avoid giving these medications to patients with a potential history of an opioid use disorder as well as guide them towards the right care.
The CDC recommends checking this resource every time a patient is about to begin their opioid treatment, then continuing to review the data every three months if the patient will be on the medication long-term.
Improving Access to Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder
There are many approved medications and existing interventions that can help people overcome an opioid addiction, and yet, access to these strategies is limited.
Though the number of overdose fatalities is carefully monitored in most states, the Pew Charitable Trusts reports that many other essential metrics are being overlooked. Some of them include:
- Number of patients diagnosed with OUD
- Number of people properly screened for OUD
- Treatment facilities available in the patient’s area
Knowing these key metrics can help improve patient access to opioid abuse treatment, as states could know the areas most in need of such services.
Establishing Evidence-Based Prevention Programs
Prevention of opioid use disorder (OUD) and opioid overdose requires the prevalence of evidence-based practices, such as widespread education in local community settings. This includes schools, healthcare centers, and social service providers.
These programs give children and young adults the tools necessary to face the pressure to be involved with drug experimentation. They also allow older adults and senior citizens who are at risk of abusing prescription opioids to understand the risks and demand alternative pain-mitigation options.
Governmental monitoring of prescription practices among healthcare providers can also prevent off-label use and over-prescription.
2. At a Provider Level
Healthcare providers also have an essential role to play in curbing the opioid epidemic, which they can achieve through:
Improving Provider Education
Doctors, nurses, and other key members of healthcare institutions can benefit from better training to recognize the signs of addiction and drug abuse.
One survey found that people see an average of 18.7 doctors throughout their lifetime, though most people will develop a closer relationship with their primary care doctor, who is their point of contact between patients and the medical system.
Training primary care doctors in spotting the signs of an opioid use disorder could help patients access better care, as they’re directed to an addiction specialist early on.
Strengthening the Knowledge of Non-Addictive Pain Management
With opioid prescriptions now more heavily restricted, patients are still left with the pressing need to access effective pain management.
Physicians should acquire more knowledge regarding evidence-based interventions that can tackle pain and make better treatment recommendations for their patients. This applies both to those who’ve never taken an opioid and to those with a history of opioid use.
3. At a Patient and Caregiver Level
There are some key things both people struggling with addiction and their loved ones can do to contribute to turning around the opioid epidemic:
Gaining More Knowledge About Opioids and Addiction
Understanding the mechanisms of how opioids and addiction work can help people know what they should protect themselves from.
For instance, learning about the key signs of addiction can enable someone to reach out to their loved one who’s showcasing key signs, such as erratic behavior or prioritizing their drug use over other activities.
Such knowledge can also empower them to know what to do in these situations and seek help right away.
Joining Community Programs and Support Groups
These types of groups can help those struggling with both chronic pain and addiction access a safe space where they can discuss their issues without feeling judged.
However, sharing these stories and participating in meetings also gives others a sense of empowerment, which could encourage them to stay on their sobriety journey. Hearing success stories from others and acknowledgements of the struggles of recovery can be incredibly motivating to newly sober individuals.
Family members can also benefit from or contribute to such groups from their unique perspectives.
Preparing for a Potential Overdose
Overdosing is a harsh reality for someone who’s addicted to these medications. When a person is abusing the drug, it can help to establish a plan to reduce the risk of fatality.
This place can include several effective interventions, such as:
- Detailing the signs of a potential overdose
- Having Naloxone on hand, which can reverse the effects of an overdose
- Monitoring the person’s breathing and other vital signs
- Calling 911 for immediate help
Integrating Technology in Opioid Use Disorder Treatment: How Telemedicine Can Help
People dealing with an opioid addiction can benefit from various types of treatment programs designed to cut the physical ties they have with the drugs, as well as any underlying psychological factors that contribute to the problem.
Unfortunately, many have difficulties accessing such programs because of:
- Geographic locations: Those in rural and remote areas often struggle to find the appropriate treatment center to treat their addiction and may need to look in other cities or states.
- Lack of specialists: Addiction treatment is complex and usually requires the support of a trained expert. Some patients may struggle to find doctors or therapists with the right training to address their specific needs, which could lead to ineffective addiction treatment.
- Privacy and stigma: Many people can feel a great deal of shame regarding their addiction, meaning they are also not at a point where they can seek help. This is especially the case for individuals living in small communities where the pressure of stigma can be greater.
- Financial hardships: Though the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) states that health insurance plans must cover the costs of substance abuse and mental health treatment, the cost of opioid treatment may still be high even if patients have these types of policies.
However, telehealth addiction services may help patients gain easier access to the treatment they need.
Benefits of Telemedicine in Opioid Addiction Treatment
Using digital technologies in addiction treatment can directly work toward easing patient access to the services they need to get and remain sober.
According to the National Institutes of Health, patients with opioid use disorders who received telehealth services during the pandemic were more likely to take their medication (such as methadone) and less likely to overdose.
A more widespread use of telemedicine in addiction care can reveal several key benefits for patients and doctors and even influence the overall state of this health crisis by:
- Increasing the chances of seeking treatment: Virtual care can combat the stigma or privacy concerns many people may have. It provides a much more discreet and convenient way for patients to connect with addiction and mental health specialists, regardless of their location.
- Reducing the financial burdens: Removing the need to travel or take time off work to enter an addiction clinic can also encourage patients to seek help. They can get the support they need without having to bear the same costs.
- Providing support as needed: Telehealth services can also allow patients to connect with their therapist or addiction specialist during those moments where they may be at risk of relapsing. This immediate support could make all the difference in whether a person stays sober or resumes their drug habit.
- Easing patient monitoring: Doctors and therapists no longer have to wait until their patients come through the doors to check up on their status. Monitoring can be successfully done remotely, and the specialists may also adjust the treatment as needed.
Addressing the opioid crisis involves a major effort that spans across different key players, from government bodies to healthcare specialists and, to an extent, the general public.
Luckily, there is now more support for individuals who are addicted than ever before, thanks to the heightened awareness everyone has regarding the scope of the phenomenon.
If you or someone you love is dealing with an opioid use disorder, the Curednation.com team can help you access remote addiction treatment that can help you reclaim your sobriety.
Request a consultation today to learn more.