Every day in America 115 people die from an opioid overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Beyond this sobering figure on sheer loss of life, the economic burden of the opioid epidemic is staggering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) places an almost $80 billion a year cost on prescription opioid misuse, arising not only from healthcare – and addiction treatment-related expenses but also from lost productivity and criminal justice factors. During yesterday’s President’s Invited Session, “A View from the Trenches of the Opioid Epidemic: How Do We Win the War?,” experts in treating and researching this epidemic discussed its origins and strategies to combat it.
James Berry, DO, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction, has been practicing for 16 years in West Virginia — one of the states hardest hit by the epidemic. In West Virginia, there were 52 opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people in 2016. This is more than double the national average, and much larger than the number two state, Ohio, where the incidence is 38 per every 100,000. To curb this epidemic, Berry emphasized, patients need access to evidence-based treatment for substance abuse disorders, but they face many obstacles. He discussed restrictions to care such as the stigma surrounding those who seek medications to treat their addictions, which exists all over the country. Berry stated, “We have an addiction problem in this nation. Until we solve the addiction problem, we are not going to make headway” in overcoming the opioid epidemic. Eliminating hardships to addiction care is essential, because treatment can be effective in turning around the lives of patients with substance abuse disorders.
Although Berry is in direct contact with affected patients, he commented on how essential larger care teams are to providing effective treatment. “My colleagues in the lab are a critical partner to help me interpret drug screens and confirmations.”
The second speaker, Carissa van den Berk-Clark, PhD, MSW, again reminded the audience of the gravity of the opioid epidemic. “We’re in a depressing state on the war against drugs, and the drugs are winning,” she said. The ongoing prescription of opioids has fueled the epidemic. According to van den Berk-Clark, “In 2014, there were 245 million prescriptions of opioids.” She commented that there is a larger likelihood of becoming a long-term opioid user when you have a large supply of opioids.
Physicians can face frustrations when treating chronic pain patients. “Physicians have 15 minutes to cover a lot. These chronic pain patients have a lot to deal with in a short period of time,” said van den Berk-Clark. Although community providers discuss opioid misuse frequently, they are still lacking tools on how to effectively respond to this misuse. Through her research she hopes to better understand how opioid misuse is identified within community settings and the barriers that chronic pain patients face.