Medicine mixes art and science. The science of data collection and evaluation, of consistent discipline and mastery of procedure; the art of observation and empathy, of a bedside manner that instills confidence and hope.
The art includes keeping the patient comfortable and as pain-free as possible in the aftermath of such events as physical trauma or cancer treatment. The science is about how to accomplish that and do no harm.
Last week, the Utah Health Department announced it will receive a federal grant to help providers achieve a better balance in pain management versus potential damage and death.
The $1 million grant, given over three years, comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it has the potential to help the state with its unacceptable health-care plight: Utah has one of the highest rates in the nation of fatal overdoses from prescription painkillers.
The money will go toward improving Utah’s Controlled Substance Database, the tool doctors and pharmacists use to learn a patient’s prescription history. The idea is to accomplish two goals: Make it possible to update the database in real-time, so patient information is much more relevant, and help the health department analyze the effectiveness of two new laws passed by the 2014 Legislature aimed at reducing prescription deaths.
One law allows physicians to prescribe Naloxone, which can reverse the effects of an overdose, to third-party family members and caregivers assisting someone at risk of overdose. The other law grants immunity to a bystander who reports someone who has overdosed on painkillers.
In 2012, the health department reports, 21 adults died each month from a prescription overdose in Utah. The three most common drugs involved were oxycodone, methadone and hydrocodone. Those drugs caused more deaths than all other drug categories, including heroin and cocaine combined.
The peak year for deaths in Utah was 2007, when 326 Utahns died from painkiller overdoses.
The CDC reported that Utah ranked fifth in the U.S. for all varieties of drug overdose deaths in 2011. That year, 504 Utahns died, or 19.5 per 100,000 people. The national rate was 13.2 per 100,000. The CDC does not break out national data on prescription painkiller death.
Utahns are prescribed painkillers at a high rate: 86 prescriptions per 100 people, with the national rate at 83 per 100.
Utah health officials are welcoming the federal help to improve monitoring of painkillers, saying it "truly has the potential to save lives here in Utah."
In a state that often eschews federal participation in its affairs, this is another welcome financial boost from Uncle Sam. For a state that is healthy in so many other ways, Utah’s ranking in this tragic statistical category must improve.
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