Although I rarely initiate opioid therapy, my practice has inherited an increasing number of patients for whom previous physicians have prescribed potentially dangerous doses of opioids for chronic musculoskeletal or neuropathic pain. What is the best approach to take to this situation? As Dr. Jennifer Middleton discussed in an earlier American Family Physician blog post, I could follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline and try to reduce their pain prescriptions to safer levels by substituting alternative treatments, such as cognitive behavioral and physical therapy. I could choose to stop prescribing opioids for chronic pain, as one federally qualified health center did with notable success. I could also seek out additional training to become certified to treat opioid addiction with buprenorphine.
Last year, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called on every physician in the U.S. to pledge to work with him to "turn the tide" on the opioid epidemic. Writing in New York Magazine, columnist Andrew Sullivan recently called it "this generation's AIDS crisis" - an epidemic that, by being highly concentrated in one demographic (AIDS in urban gay men, opioids in rural, white working-class persons), was invisible to most Americans:
For many of us, ... it’s quite possible to live our daily lives and have no connection to this devastation. And yet its ever-increasing scope, as you travel a few hours into rural America, is jaw-dropping: 52,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2015. That’s more deaths than the peak year for AIDS, which was 51,000 in 1995, before it fell in the next two years. The bulk of today’s human toll is related to opioid, heroin, and fentanyl abuse. And unlike AIDS in 1995, there’s no reason to think the worst is now over.
The April 1 issue of AFP featured a Practice Guidelines summary of the American Academy of Family Physicians' position paper on management of chronic pain and opioid misuse, which noted that "in addition to physicians, there are opportunities to help at the practice, community, education, and advocacy levels." In an accompanying editorial, two family physician authors of the position paper argued that family physicians should take a leading role in responding to the opioid crisis:
Family physicians are committed to advancing population and community health, and we must take the lead in reducing opioid misuse and overdose before outside entities mandate practice strategies that may not be patient-centered. Substance abuse disorders remain a stigma, and physician offices must be safe places for nonjudgmental diagnosis and treatment. Although we certainly cannot tackle this challenge alone, we have a clear opportunity to combat the problem of opioid misuse.
Similarly, the American College of Physicians recently published a position paper on prevention and treatment of substance use disorders that observed that only 18% of people in the U.S. with a substance use disorder are receiving treatment, far short of treatment rates for other chronic conditions in primary care: hypertension (77%), diabetes (73%), or major depression (71%). The authors concurred with the AAFP that multi-pronged efforts will be required to reduce the rising toll of opioid misuse:
Multiple stakeholders should cooperate to address the epidemic of prescription drug misuse, including the following strategies: implementation of evidence-based guidelines for pain management; expansion of access to naloxone to opioid users, law enforcement, and emergency medical personnel; expansion of access to medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorders; improved training in the treatment of substance use disorders, including buprenorphine-based treatment; establishment of a national prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP); and improvement of existing monitoring programs.
This post originally appeared on the AFP Community Blog.