5 facts all health professionals need to know about opioid drugs

Opioid drug addictions are a growing problem around the world. Earlier on this year, in response to concerns that Australia is headed down the same path, the Therapeutic Goods Administration published a consultation paper into this issue.  They report that Australia and other countries are seeing unprecedented numbers of overdoses from legally prescribed opioid drugs.

There are 5 relevant facts Australian healthcare providers will want to understand about opioid drugs.

1.    Opioid drugs are highly addictive even at suggested dosages
In the United States, an opioid drug epidemic is ravaging the country. As of 2016, 2.1 million people in the USA were addicted to some form of opioid drugs, according to research cited by Sciencedaily.com.

health insuranceThe New York Times and The New Yorker have both reported stories on the origins of this epidemic. In the 1990s, Purdue Pharma, a manufacturer of opioid drugs, set out to convince physicians in the United States that their opioid drugs were not addictive. They did this primarily by inviting doctors to training seminars they sponsored and through carefully orchestrated marketing campaigns. Their credible-sounding marketing messages convinced healthcare practitioners that the drugs were harmless. Doctors began prescribing opioids as pain relief for growing numbers of patients.

As Purdue Pharma spreads their marketing message globally, it could be beneficial for Australian healthcare practitioners to consider educating themselves on the trajectory of the crisis in the United States.

To avoid a similar catastrophe here at home, it is crucial for healthcare professionals to examine the actual science behind the addictive properties of opioids rather than simply accepting a drug company’s marketing at face value.

2. There is substantial risk of patient overdose from opioid drugs
The World Health Organisation (WHO) explains the danger of opioid overdose in simple terms. The drugs directly affect the portion of the brain responsible for regulation of breathing. Too much of an opioid drug can adversely affect the patient’s ability to breathe; the result is respiratory depression and which leads to the risk of death.

3. Opioid overdose can result in the patient’s death
WHO reports that fatal opioid overdoses are less common than non-fatal overdoses; however, significant numbers of people are dying from overdoses. Since 1998, the US Center for Disease Control has attributed deaths of more than 200,000 people to opioid drugs in the United States alone.

4. There is evidence suggesting that opioid drugs might prolong a patient’s pain
Multiple scientific studies have provided evidence that opioid drugs might actually prolong pain. Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder conducted one of the most recent of these studies. They determined that the longer they gave the animals in their study doses of morphine, the longer the animals remained in pain. This discovery calls into question whether we should even consider prescribing opioid drugs as long-term pain relievers.

5. Insurance providers can play a role in preventing opioid misuse and addiction
In the United States, researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have determined that medical insurance providers are not maximising their capabilities to fight the opioid epidemic.

While our healthcare system is significantly different than the system that’s in place in the USA, both our public Medicare and our private health insurance providers might benefit from investigating how our policies could be tailored to discourage a similar opioid crisis here in Australia.

Being proactive about averting the crisis is of particular importance to both the government and private Australian insurers, since the cost of drug treatments is exorbitant.

Australian Medicare is already overburdened with substance abuse cases. Earlier this year, ABC News reported that there are about 500,000 Australians who desire rehab treatment each year and only about 200,000 spaces available for Medicare patients to receive it. If the number of opioid drug users continues to grow, the inevitable costs for treating them will also grow, which will burden the system further.

If all Australian healthcare professionals were to have a solid understanding of opioid drugs, wouldn’t we be in a much better positioned to collectively combat the growing problem of opioid misuse?

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