We often hear about the “opioid crisis” and its devastating effects — more than 90 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose and about 2 million suffer from substance use disorders involving prescription opioids. But, argued panelists at a Stanford Medicine X session on the topic yesterday, the issues are often oversimplified in public discussion and by the media, which stigmatizes opioid users and contributes to misconceptions.
The afternoon panel — which Larry Chu, MD, moderator and executive director of Medicine X, deliberately called “Opioids in America” instead of “The Opioid Crisis” — offered a broad range of perspectives from patients and physicians. Among the misconceptions discussed by the panel:
- Only drug addicts use opioids: Joe Riffe, an ePatient and paramedic, explained, “If you use opioids, you’re seen as weak or a drug addict or a drug seeker. I’ll never take an opioid on duty, but I’m forced to use them because I’m in too much pain from my amputation. And it’s really looked down upon, especially in the medical community.”
- People choose to be opioid addicts: Ashley Elliott, a recovering addict, artist and psychology major, noted, “People that are addicted to opioids don’t want to be. And if you’re a recovering addict, finding a doctor who is willing to treat you as a human as opposed to an addict is difficult.” Thomas Kline, MD, PhD, a patient and geriatric medicine specialist in Raleigh, North Carolina, agreed: “People with opioid addictions have been lepers for years and now another 9 million people have become lepers because they take pain medicine.”
- Opioids are readily available: “Opioids are not being thrown at patients like candy, as it’s sometimes portrayed in the media,” said Heather Aspell, a patient, artist, attorney and disability advocate. “We actually have to go through so many hoops to get our medication. Beyond simply getting the prescription from a doctor, it can be challenging to even find the medication. I get refused by pharmacies regularly.”
- Doctors are adequately treating pain: Anesthesiologist and pain medicine specialist Frank Lee, MD, told the audience, “Data shows that we’re doing a terrible job for a lot of populations, including cancer patients, surgery patients and chronic pain patients. Now is the time to re-evaluate the paradigm. We don’t need more guidelines. We need to work together, providers and patients, to re-exam this pain-treatment paradigm.”
- We handle prescription opioids like other countries: “I think the biggest misconception is that the United States is normal in how it handles prescription opioids,” said Stanford addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD. He later added, “The United States’ opioid use dwarfs any other nation by a very large factor. So we over prescribe. And at the same time, there are people who absolutely need these medications and don’t get them. So we also under prescribe. As my friend Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, says, we shouldn’t be pro-opioid or negative-opioid; we should be pro-patient.”
After the panel discussion, Medicine X executive board member Nick Dawson moderated a town hall — pushing the panel and audience to think boldly about potential solutions. Among attendees’ suggestions was to change how prescriptions are written by going beyond a numeric pain scale to identify the goal for the pain medication, being more specific about what is being treated on the script and creating a certification process for patients with chronic pain that is recognized by pharmacists.
Near the end of the session, Bruce Greenstein, the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ chief technology officer, announced an opioid challenge summit and code-a-thon taking place in Washington, D.C. this December. And Chu closed things out with a hopeful note: “I started out this conference asking us to think outside the box about these tough topics, and I think we made a start on that today… We’re reducing the stigma about opioids by talking about it, and we’re raising awareness. Let’s keep talking.”
Previously: It’s back! Stanford Medicine X returns to campus, The opioid crisis: Medicine X panelists explore the complexity of managing chronic pain and The problem of prescription opioids: “An extraordinarily timely topic”
Photo courtesy of Stanford Medicine X