The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of millions of individuals — both in the United States and around the world. In the United States, the pandemic has exacerbated the nation’s drug overdose epidemic in tandem with ravaging the mental health of many by increasing stress and isolation. Individuals with substance use issues find it more challenging to get help due to limited access to facilities, widespread program cancellations and decreased prevention measures during the pandemic. In this article, I will provide an overview of the public health situation and provide my thoughts on how to continue to prevent and mitigate the challenges ahead.
Why Opioids Are A Problem — Especially For The U.S.
The U.S. has historically struggled with opioid addiction. Research suggests that 2 million Americans suffered from an opioid use disorder in 2018 — well before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Synthetic opioids have contributed to a nationwide increase in overdose deaths, which have increased by 38.4% from the 12-month period leading up to June 2019 compared to the 12-month period leading up to May 2020. But this isn’t just a public health problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the total economic burden of prescription opioid misuse alone is approximately $78.5 billion a year, including health care costs, addiction treatment costs and lost productivity.
What We Can Do
The White House and the CDC recommend a few key interventions that could aid in the mitigation of the opioid epidemic: educating as to appropriate and safe opioid prescribing; expanding safe access to new treatments and innovations, including naloxone use; and improving links between mental health care and substance use treatment services and increasing the safe use of medication-assisted treatment. The issue of drug supply has worsened the opioid crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Potential action items include:
1. Expand Equitable Access To Evidence-Based Treatment: There is an uptick in the need for more naloxone, an anti-overdose drug that can save lives when administered in time. But it’s not just about the access to drugs that could help prevent overdoses. Many experts believe — and government data support — that this is a public health crisis. In addition, there is an increasing push for increasing access to treatment options for patients who are at the highest risk of an overdose. This can be done, according to experts, by allowing wider use of naloxone — something I recently spoke in support of before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in collaboration with the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA).
2. Advance Workplace Education On Pain, Recovery And Harm-Reduction Strategies: According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, there is a continued call to support workers who suffer in pain at work. And there is a continued call to educate regarding the safe and responsible use of opioids now more than ever. During Covid-19, there are different ideas on how best to do this. Given the rise in drug-related deaths and multi-substance use disorders, there continues to be a gap on how to best implement safer prescribing practices with respect to opioids while at work and at home. Emerging new digital technology and opportunities to transform preventative healthcare can potentially help overcome the challenges of managing pain.
3. Enhance Prevention With Digital Transformation: Many experts are pushing for non-prescription pain relief methods such as telemedicine, physiotherapy and the use of medication-assisted treatment and acupuncture. There is also a push to train medical providers more comprehensively in detecting substance use disorders and talking about the options for treatment with their patients. These treatments and many others — including the advancement of new innovative treatments, and digital transformation, such as telehealth and telemedicine — are offering novel innovative treatment options at home. We must consider all of these options when working with patients in the future that may be a way to proactively minimize opioid use and maintain preventive care for pain control.
Challenges ahead to combat this opioid crisis include taking policy action, figuring out how to provide more funding for new recovery treatments and innovation, mitigating illicit drug production and trafficking, providing compassionate care during an age of digital transformation and reimagining healthcare during a pandemic. While investments have increased in addiction treatment services, there are some gaps that need closing. There is a continued need by all multi-stakeholder organizations to recognize the scope and complexity of this problem to find equitable, accessible solutions and implement broad policy action for broad populations.