With Utah’s nearly six opioid related deaths per week, our awareness and national ranking is at an all-time high. Now that our State Opioid Task Force is in full swing, I thought it’s time to add my voice and share the story of someone I know, who’s just one example of many others with similar stories of opioid addiction.
I know a man, unnamed for obvious reasons, who was born and raised here on the East Bench. In his early 20s, an avid skier, he crashed and shattered his femur. The ski accident introduced him to unbearable pain but he was optimistic after a number of surgeries, a permanent metal rod in his leg, months of physical therapy and lots of pain pills. Nearing the year mark from the accident he was informed that he would soon be weaned off his pain meds. His surgeon was of the opinion that, “You don’t need those anymore,” while his regular doctor prescribed a light dose, way below his level of pain.
His multiple pleas for stronger pills fell on deaf ears. He turned to the streets, continuing to find help for his pain with similar medication but the price was proving a challenge. Eventually, however, someone offered a much cheaper alternative: black tar heroin.
Now clean and looking back on his nearly 12 years as a pill and heroin addict, living on the streets and begging for money to feed his addiction, he has time to reflect on what went wrong and when. Although at times regret and resentment consume him, his biggest concerns seem to be how to use his experience for good and to help prevent others from going down a similar path.
One haunting observation of his is that people always have and always will look for ways to numb their mental and physical pain. For him, not once did a doctor sit down with him and explain in detail the side effects of opioids and the extreme danger of addiction; nor were there discussions about realistic pain management without the use of opioids.
This courageous man’s story is just one of thousands. Clearly there is a need for better education and more doctors specializing in pain and opioid medication. Better access to pain management doctors is critical. These doctors offer alternatives and supplements to opioids as pain treatment and are there through both the intensive and tapering periods. In addition, these doctors educate and better monitor the patient’s pain level, tolerance and pill consumption.
Yes, more doctors specialized in the problem sounds like an obvious solution; yet, a May 15 report states, “For change to happen, we need more physicians who are trained in addiction medicine and addiction psychiatry … more than 20 million Americans need treatment for substance use, and 2 million Americans have an opioid use disorder. Yet the United States has only about 2,000 physicians trained in addiction psychiatry and 3,500 trained in addiction medicine.”
In an article published at ACP Internist, Amy Karon led with “Until very recently, medical schools offered little or no training in addiction medicine.” She also stated, “We have had over 2,400 physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners ... nearly all reported that they received little or no education on appropriate patient evaluation, professional boundaries, or careful prescribing of controlled drugs.”
Our lawmakers, our family members and each of us can make a positive impact on the opioid crisis by getting involved. As Karon notes, “The medical community, including medical schools, has not responded with the speed and intensity required to meet this crisis. Only when faced with outside pressure from the media, legislation, or public pledges has medicine responded.”
Opioid addiction, such as the man’s story I shared, is preventable. If you are not involved, get informed, speak up and press for better education and communication, especially with our medical professionals and their patients.
Chase Winder, Salt Lake City, is a government relations executive with Qualtrics and the Republican candidate for the District 2 seat in the Utah Senate.