Opioid addiction is hitting Americans hard and this largely due to the widespread accessibility of opioid drugs. While heroin, of course, has long been the opiate form of choice in the public eye, the increase in opioid abuse over the past decade or so has been the result of flourishing narcotic painkillers flooding the market.
Narcotic painkillers—like Oxycontin and Percocet (brand labels)–operate on the same chemical pathways as heroin (et al). They dull pain for those who truly deal with chronic problems but also provide physical euphoria for those seeking a chemical high. But while heroin use is not necessarily skyrocketing, abuse of prescription painkillers is. And this is the foundation for the worst epidemic of unintentional drug overdose cases in United States history.
[Accidental] Opiate drug overdose, today, is as much as five times higher than it was during the mid 1970’s, a time when heroin use became much more common, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unfortunately, though, while the initial concern over opiate abuse began forty years ago, our medical infrastructure is still ill-equipped to deal with those who need help to recover from addiction.
Nearly 30,000 Americans died as a result of heroin and prescription painkiller overdose in 2014, according to data from the CDC. But roughly 2.2 million people are reported to be using the drug(s) regularly, and only half of this number actually receive the treatment they need to stop the abuse.
Of course, stopping opiate abuse is not just about users seeking effective treatment. There are more than 900,000 physicians in the United States and just about every one of them can write a prescription for opioid painkillers. In some states, it is even common practice for nurse practitioners and physician assistants to write various prescriptions, including narcotic painkillers.
Assuming that every doctor thoroughly analyzes their patients’ conditions before prescribing these dangerous drugs—so that only those who truly need it will receive it—the risk for abuse is still high; many who use these drugs once have trouble stopping even after their pain may have stopped (or they take it for chronic pain and develop a tolerance). And, obviously, some patients either willingly or unknowingly share their drugs with other people.
All that in mind, though, no more than 32,000 physicians have received the necessary training to prescribe the opioid deterrent buprenorphine, which means that while [nearly] every doctor is licensed to sell opiates, less than 3 percent can prescribe the intervention medication that can help patients quit using them.