Health providers have been prescribing opioids as a medication for pain for years, but an ongoing epidemic is putting healthcare workers at odds with these medicines. Though pharmaceutical companies have claimed that patients won’t become addicted to opioid pain relievers, the National Institute on Drug Abuse compiled data found that 50,000 people in the US had died from opioid overdoses in 2019 alone. While opioid medicines like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and methadone are efficient for relieving pain, roughly a quarter of patients misuse the medications and develop dangerous addictions.
Now that thousands of Americans are suffering from the opioid crisis, healthcare providers must shift their practices. Here’s what healthcare providers can do to minimize the opioid epidemic:
Provide services and solutions for better pain management
It’s time for healthcare providers to re-examine how they can better manage the pain of their patients. Pain is so prevalent throughout all of medicine we refer to pain as the “fifth vital sign.” Chronic Pain affects 20% (1 of every 5) Americans. It dramatically affects the quality of life of the sufferer. This suffering costs society up to $635 Billion dollars a year according to Health Economists from the Journal of Pain (more than cancer, health disease or diabetes) when direct (medical costs) and indirect (lost productivity) costs are accounted for. As such, healthcare providers will need to examine different medical services and solutions to help patients manage their pain without putting them at risk of addiction.
Unlike Blood Pressure or weight, there is no objective measurement of pain. Instead we use an arbitrary 1-10 scale called the visual analogue scale (VAS) which is very subjective and inaccurate. Our inability to measure Pain has, in fact, proved to be a big part of the problem. Once Pain became the “fifth vital sign”, pain became a key factor in justifying medications or medical intervention for providers and organizations. Relying heavily on such a subjective finding has led to overtreatment, delays in care, unnecessary treatments, introduced socioeconomic/racial bias, and a significant increase in patient suffering and payer expenses.
One option is to follow the footsteps of many providers and the Med Chi CTO (Care Transformation Organization) which utilize the Pain Scored Service to measure their patients’ pain, activity, and mental health through a mobile platform. Through this remote patient monitoring platform, health providers can demonstrate the therapeutic benefits of the pain medications and identify any problems before they become serious addictions. This not only prevents opioid addiction in patients, but also enables providers to monitor the efficiency of their prescribed medications. The service contacts patients frequently to overcome barriers in care. The data demonstrates value in care for providers and payers.
Improve the care models for opioid drug addiction
Care models must also be improved to better manage the epidemic. This can start with upgrading healthcare payment models. The American Journal of Medical Care found that physicians have insufficient financing for treatments like buprenorphine, due to the fee-for-service payment model. Since financial barriers can cause effective treatments to be underutilized, the AJMC recommends that physicians adopt the more accessible bundled payment model instead.
Aside from improving the financial accessibility of opioid drug addiction treatments, a Maryville University guide to patient confidentiality notes that healthcare workers also need to establish trust and open communication with their patients to provide higher-quality consultations. Providers need to follow HIPAA guidelines, comply with state regulations, and utilize encrypted technologies, so that patients can trust their services and feel safe to disclose crucial health information. By improving their patients’ access and trust health providers can ensure that more individuals will be willing to seek help for their addiction.
Leverage technologies that can prevent opioid misuse
Providers can also improve their care model for opioid drug addiction by including technologies that can address the misuse of the drug. As previously mentioned, remote patient monitoring tools allow healthcare providers to observe the status of patients that have received pain medications, like opioids. These technologies are the first line of defense that help providers ensure that their patients are properly handling their prescribed medicines.
On top of that, providers can also offer complementary tech like the University of Washington’s wearable devices that can detect and prevent opioid overdoses. This wearable auto-injector is equipped with sensors that follow the respiration patterns of the users. Once the device detects a stop in one’s breathing and moving patterns, it immediately injects naloxone to reverse fatalities from opioid overdoses.
Before the country loses more lives to the opioid crisis, healthcare providers need to better understand the role they play. Chronic pain and opioid addiction can greatly affect a patient’s quality of life, and there’s a clear and urgent need to improve services and approaches for both conditions.
By Paola Mattie