Just about anyone who is up to date with the news will know that the problem of opioid addiction is repeatedly mentioned, but a new study by databank corporation Fair Health has produced a devastating finding: a 3,000% increase in medical services to opioid addicted patients. This finding was uncovered after examining records for patients with private health insurance, and analysts are worried that health services may not be prepared for the growing number of calls for treatment for what has become a mainstream problem.
Although prescription opioid dependence accounts for a large percentage of cases, heroin use in the US appears to be on the rise, with patients under the age of 35 being more likely to overdose on heroin than their older compatriots. However, the over-35s were more likely to overdose on other types of opiates, in particular, prescription drugs.
Apart from examining overdose data, the study also looked at the call for treatment to overcome dependence. Dependency triggers a demand for doctors’ visits, lab tests and rehabilitation programs. A staggering increase from 2007’s figure of 217,000 such interventions to 2014’s figure of 7 million was recorded.
A scientist at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management says that the percentage increase in healthcare needs for drug dependent patients is striking, even for those who are already familiar with the US opioid addiction problem. He confirmed that the figures point towards a situation that could be termed an “epidemic” without any exaggeration.
Other findings from the Fair Health study
Using the claims information which produced the statistics on increased needs for opioid addiction treatment, Fair Health was able to find additional information that is of interest. For example, men remain likelier than women to become dependent on opioids, but women are more likely to experience an overdose. There was also a varying ratio of opioid dependence to population figures across various US states. Rhode Island had the highest addiction ratio, while Maine and Montana shared the lowest addiction ratio slot.
Addiction problem attributed to doctors’ prescriptions
It is ironic that medical science will now have to deal with a problem that it created for itself owing to an increase in the frequency of opioid painkiller prescriptions during the last ten years. Once patients are hooked, they may seek additional drugs on the black market, but many addicts say that it is possible to get opioids through friends and family members who have prescription meds they don’t use, or through “doctor shopping” in which multiple prescriptions are obtained. Doctors worry that because younger people may have more difficulty in getting prescription meds after they become hooked, they may turn to heroin for relief.
Opioid prescriptions data provides worrying evidence for over-prescription as being the root cause of America’s opioid problem. Prescriptions doubled between 2000 and 2012 reaching a total of 282 million prescriptions.
Steps taken to address the opioid addiction epidemic
During 2014, certain drugs we reclassified, making it more difficult to obtain refills. The Comprehensive Addition and Recovery Act of 2016 focusses on preventing and treating addiction, but has been criticized as not allowing for sufficient funding to reach its full potential. At state level, prescription monitoring programs have been implemented, allowing pharmacists to check how often a patient has filled prescriptions for opioid based pain killers. This measure hopes to mitigate the problem of “doctor shopping”.
Experts believe that these measures have been successful, at least, up to a point, but many say that there is insufficient focus on providing treatment for those suffering from existing addictions. The stereotype of the slumland drug addict has to be rethought, since opioid dependence and abuse now affects a broad cross-section of society.
Prevention is better than cure, but cures are still needed
To date, most interventions focusing on opioid addiction have worked towards limiting the chance of becoming addicted in the first place, but fail to address the problems of those who have already become addicted. Presumably, the thinking behind this is that when obtaining opioids becomes more difficult, patients who have become dependent on the drugs will seek medical advice more readily. Judging from Fair Heath’s recent data, this is indeed happening, but the number of untreated cases remains a concern and can only be guessed at.
Advice for opioid dependent patients
It can be extremely dangerous to attempt quitting an opioid addiction without medical help. “Cold turkey” withdrawal can result in fatal seizures, and without counselling and support, patients can easily relapse with the accompanying risk of an overdose should they attempt to use the strong doses they used after developing opioid tolerance. Consulting a medical doctor or attending a rehabilitation program in which medical professionals are on hand to monitor progress is recommended.