As a physician in the pain management field, I’ve had a front-row seat to our nation’s opioid crisis. Each day information continues to unfold, reminding us of the importance of this epidemic. Most recently, the National Safety Council announced that we are now more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than a car accident.
Let that sink in. A category of medications widely and legally prescribed by doctors to manage pain has become so dangerous to our collective health that it kills more Americans than car crashes, which claim more than 40,000 lives each year.
In fact, research released by the National Safety Council states the odds of dying from opioids are one in 96. That’s greater than the chance of dying from a fall, in a pedestrian accident, by a gun or by drowning. It’s a truly astounding statistic.
The opioid crisis is continuing at a staggering rate, and death rates from prescription narcotic abuse and addiction continue to climb. Opioids are a necessary option for some cancer patients, blocking pain that may otherwise be difficult to manage. However, the condition causing the pain remains the same. In other words, opioids mask the pain, but when their effects fade, the pain remains.
As a pain management doctor, I know all too well that the line between comfort and addiction can be challenging. As a nation, it’s time for us to have a serious and frank conversation about how to best address this epidemic. We must talk about the way in which opioids are administered and to what end. Our primary obligation is to be transparent about what opioids are capable of, whether they are truly clinically indicated, and seek alternatives when appropriate to reduce the risk of addiction.
Fulfilling this obligation starts with an honest conversation about the dangers of opioids and how a patient views them. The more a patient is educated about opioids, the more likely they will adhere to the prescribed amount over the suggested period of time. Doctors must show compassion, understanding and always be solely focused on what is in the best interests of the patient. Patients must be willing and able to trust their physicians; however, patient accountability is also vital to ensure their safety.
Innovative, patient-focused methods for addressing pain should also be identified and discussed. Everyone is different when it comes to pain tolerance and management. There should be no stone unturned to reduce patient suffering. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America®, pain management specialists present a variety of options to ease our patients’ pain – all while aggressively working to find solutions to the source of their symptoms.
Our nation’s opioid crisis will not be solved overnight or by regulations alone. At the core of this crisis is the need for doctors and patients to develop stronger relationships built on trust, transparency and an understanding of how and when opioids should be used. Given the millions of people in this country who have already been affected by this crisis, we owe our patients a tremendous obligation to foster and monitor open communication about opioids. When the opportunity arises, we must educate about and encourage alternative pain management options. This will help to curb opioid use and, ultimately, prevent addiction.