A drug problem can start out innocently, with someone seeking pain relief following surgery or a car accident, but can spiral into addiction or death without the proper precautions.

Up to one in four patients who have received a long-term prescription for opioids from their primary care doc have struggled with addiction. And more than 165,000 Americans died from powerful painkillers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, during the 15-year period ending in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Often, patients are oblivious of the potential dangers that come with these pills, and possible alternatives to manage pain.

With all that in mind, the American Hospital Association and CDC Tuesday released a new resource to assist patients and their doctors in starting these crucial conversations. The one-page guide details the risks of initiating opioid use, potential pitfalls to avoid, and alternative treatments for pain. Doctors should think carefully before putting pen to script, those involved warn.

“Starting patients on an opioid is a momentous decision,” Tom Frieden, M.D., director of the CDC, said in a statement. “Patients and health care providers need to talk about the risks and benefits of prescription opioids, and this tool from the AHA and CDC will guide them through these important discussions.” 

More than 1,000 patients show up in hospital emergency departments every day for misusing prescription painkillers. The AHA-CDC resource gives providers several avenues to confront this ongoing epidemic, be it while planning to discharge a patient following a hospital stay (especially while reconciling medications), inside of an online patient portal, through a health system’s social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter, or at community events such as Rotary Club meetings or school assemblies.

As we pointed out in H&HN's March cover story, America’s hospitals are confronting the opioid epidemic on a daily basis and seeking out ways to respond.

“Every day, hospitals see how misuse of and overdose from prescription opioids affect patients’ families, loved ones and communities,” AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack said in a statement. "We want patients to have open, honest conversations with their care providers about the best way to manage pain. The goal is to help patients manage their pain and continue to lead healthy, productive lives.”

In conversations with those hospitals, the AHA has identified six key roles these institutions can play in addressing the epidemic, according to a separate advisory issued Tuesday. The association urges hospitals to review policies concerning these roles. Along with monitoring patients following surgery to look out for over-sedation and respiratory depression related to opioids administered through IV, those include: 

  1. Ensuring clinician education about and oversight of appropriate prescribing practices, which includes patient education
  2. Offering treatment and referrals for patients with substance use disorder
  3. Making sure that patients treated for substance use disorder are properly discharged
  4. Handling individuals with drug-seeking behavior in the emergency department appropriately, which includes the use of prescription monitoring programs
  5. Reviewing opioid alternatives to pain management
  6. Safeguarding prescription opioids against diversion

For more on how the Centers for Disease Control and the American Hospital Association are addressing the epidemic, check out cdc.gov and aha.org. You can also find all of Hospitals & Health Network’s previous coverage on the epidemic at www.hhnmag.com/opioids.