A new investigation reveals that many healthcare providers are still prescribing dangerous amounts of opioids and prescription painkillers that can lead to addiction and a range of negative health outcomes. The nation has been grappling with the opioid crisis for years as many patients overdose on the drugs, while others turn to illegal alternatives such as heroin. The CDC says taking these drugs can weaken the respiratory system, increasing the severity of COVID-19 complications.
The coronavirus pandemic continues to grab national headlines as health organizations and patients turn their attention to what’s going in the news, but in the background, it seems as if the opioid crisis is making a comeback.
So, why are so many providers prescribing opioids during the pandemic?
Tracking the Opioid Epidemic
The rise of the opioid epidemic started in the late 1990s when large pharmaceutical companies started pouring addictive painkillers onto the market. These companies, including Johnson & Johnson, used aggressive selling tactics to get as many drugs out to consumers as possible while playing down the addictive nature of the drugs.
Over the last 20 years, the number of opioid-related deaths and overdoses has skyrocketed across the country, particularly in working class, rural states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The more we learn about the destructive nature of these drugs, the more health professionals have been sounding the alarm. The medical community has been urging providers to look for alternative treatment methods for chronic pain. Meanwhile, the companies that helped fuel the epidemic are trying to settle in court for billions of dollars for all the damage they caused these communities.
This is not to say that there haven’t been any victories in the war against opioids; over the last several years, we’ve made some progress. According to the CDC, the number of drug overdose deaths decreased by 4% from 2017 to 2018. That same year, prescription opioid-involved death rates decreased by 13.5% and heroin-involved death rates decreased by 4%.
However, progress tends to vary across the country. Rural areas have made little progress, while others are closer to eradicating opioids completely.
Telehealth and remote patient monitoring have helped accelerate these trends – both positively and negatively. Providers are finding new ways to treat chronic pain. Instead of sending these patients home with powerful prescriptions they might misuse, providers can use digital tools to remotely address pain and find alternative treatments. Many providers are turning to physical therapy, OTC painkillers, CBD, and less addictive prescription medications to reduce the nation’s dependence on opioids.
So, What’s Changed?
The coronavirus has upended these trends in more ways than one.
For one, patients suffering from addiction now find themselves in isolation instead of connected to friends, counsellors, and family. They may have to rely on video chat and Zoom calls instead of getting together in person with other people who are dealing with the same issues.
If a person wants to obtain some opioids, they will probably encounter fewer challenges now than they would have in 2019. The coronavirus pandemic has forced many patients and providers to switch to telehealth to reduce the number of in-person appointments and the chances of infection. Patients can easily see a new provider for the first time via telehealth, even if they are across state lines. The doctor may be unfamiliar with the patient’s history with painkillers. They may prescribe drugs quickly over the phone or internet to appease the patient, even if it could jeopardize their health.
In spite of some advancement, the U.S. is still lacking alternative pain treatments, and the coronavirus has only made things worse. The absence of in-person yoga classes, physical therapy, and other forms of exercise can take a toll on patients suffering from chronic pain.
At the end of the day, opioids are effective, and they work fast when it comes to getting rid of pain. Turning patients on to less harmful treatment methods is more time consuming. It could take months for these patients to find a solution for their pain that works for them. Many providers just don’t have the time or resources to follow up with these patients as they experiment with different methods of relief.
Providers may also have trouble diagnosing new patients over the phone or internet, especially when it comes to something as covert as chronic pain. In many cases, the provider must rely on the patient’s word. If a patient rates their pain at a ten, the doctor may have no choice but to prescribe opioids as an easy fix. When it comes to telehealth, doctors usually err on the side of caution when seeing new patients. Not treating the patient’s pain could lead to disaster, so many providers will prescribe medication, even if there are alternatives standing by.
With telehealth expanding across the country, patients may spread the word on who’s more likely to prescribe opioids over the phone and who’s not. Patients looking for a prescription may then flood this person’s office with requests for an appointment.
Studies show that surgeons are giving out millions of excess opioid prescriptions every year, which contribute to the epidemic. Dentists and primary care providers are also doling out these drugs for common injuries like toothaches and sprained ankles.
The U.S. makes up just 5% of the global population, but we consume 80% of the world’s opioids. Other countries have found ways of treating chronic pain without the risk of overdose. While the coronavirus has complicated this issue, we can’t afford to let the opioid crisis make a comeback.