United States history was made this week as America’s top doctor, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, reached out with a letter to all physicians. Dr. Murthy has an urgent reason to write: Tens of thousands of Americans are dying from overdoses of prescription pain pills, including Oxycontin, Hydrocodone and Vicodin. Opioids are causing more than 1,000 emergency room visits each day – and roughly 78 people lose their lives every single day to prescription painkillers. “Everywhere I travel, I see communities devastated by opioid overdoses. I meet families too ashamed to seek treatment for addiction.” The letter, which can be viewed in its entirety here, goes on to state that since 1999, opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled – yet opioid prescriptions have increased at an alarming rate: With over 249,000,000 prescriptions for opioids written in 2013 in the United States, there are enough for every adult in America to have a bottle of prescription painkillers. Dr. Murthy explains that this drastic increase in the distribution of pills hasn’t come with increased reports of pain – but instead, now nearly 2 million people in the U.S. have a prescription opioid use disorder, which has contributed to increased heroin use along with the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV. The Surgeon General explains to physicians that he understands their desire keep patients out of pain, but even the best intentions may have gone horribly wrong. His plan to turn the tide on opioid crisis involves a national movement of clinicians to do three things:
- Learn. Dr. Murthy asks physicians to educate themselves on how to treat pain safely and effectively. He suggests the TurnTheTideRx pocket guide with the Center for Disease Control Opioid Prescribing Guideline. By sharpening their prescribing practices, Dr. Murthy hopes physicians will be able to treat pain in a safer, more effective manner.
- Screen And Treat. As many as one in four people receiving long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting struggle with opioid addiction. The Surgeon General suggests physicians screen their patients for opioid addiction or opioid use disorder. If a physician diagnosis a person with addiction or substance disorder, he asks that they connect the patient with resources for evidence-based treatment.
- Break The Stigma. It is estimated that only 1 in 10 people in active addiction seek and receive help for their addiction. “We can shape how the rest of the country sees addiction by talking about and treating it as a chronic illness, not a moral failing,” Dr. Murthy writes. The top doctor says that clinicians have a duty to help change how our country thinks about addiction. He hopes that this effort will help close the treatment gap.
The Surgeon General’s unprecedented efforts ultimately aim to change the way doctors treat pain, write prescriptions and address addiction issues. From his letter, which will be delivered to every physician across the country over the next few days, we hope that change can start at the top – with health care practitioners and pharmaceutical companies – and work its way down to the families and individuals who live with the devastation and heartbreak of addiction every day. We hope that all members of the community can be a part of the solution.