Heath Ledger and Prince are just a few of many who have succumbed to the opioid epidemic raging in the U.S. On average, 78 people die each day from opioid overdoses and to date, the death toll is similar to the population of a major U.S. city like Atlanta. An estimated 22 million Americans meet the criteria for having a drug addiction disorder.

In addition to all the suffering it causes, the opioid crisis extracts a heavy toll on the U.S. healthcare system, with an estimated $55 billion in costs each year. Drug treatment and prevention are vital components to end the epidemic, yet millions of Americans do not have access to drug treatment programs.

In today’s plenary session, A. Thomas McLellan, PhD, founder and chairman of the Treatment Research Institute, will discuss effective treatments for substance use disorders. A distinguished addiction researcher who served as the deputy director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, McLellan has been personally impacted by the addiction epidemic, through the loss of his own son to an overdose in 2007.

In his plenary presentation, McLellan will emphasize that treatment for addiction must be considered essential to routine healthcare. “Failure to recognize and include addiction in healthcare has led to well-intentioned but inappropriate and institutionalized programs to deal with this chronic illness,” McLellan says.

McLellan wants to emphasize three take-home messages for the laboratory medicine community. First, the good news is that “there is substantial scientific evidence showing that it is possible to prevent substance use and misuse among youth,” he says. The goal is to recognize early signs of substance misuse and provide intervention before it maturates into addiction.

McLellan’s second point is that “addiction should be classified as a brain disease, characterized by loss of control over substance use, which is caused by progressive changes to the reward, stress, inhibition, and motivation circuits of the brain,” he says.

Finally, he emphasizes that in order for substance abuse disorders to be treated appropriately, they must lose the stigma of being a “character or moral disorder” and be considered chronic illnesses. Currently geographic, cultural, and socioeconomic divides have “segregated addiction treatment from healthcare and left this specialty without the tools and training needed to properly address a chronic illness,” McLellan says.

Not recognizing addiction as a chronic disease has led to ineffective treatments that “are short-term and programmatic, instead of chronic and personalized, as is indicated by the new science behind addiction,” McLellan adds. This misunderstanding has led to misdiagnoses, suboptimal treatment regimens, re-hospitalizations, and overdose deaths.

The time is now to make “addiction treatment a part of routine healthcare,” McLellan says. He will share more of his insights in today’s not-to-be missed plenary.