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After being prescribed opioids for just one day, individuals can face significant challenges with addiction, with six percent continuing to use opioids a year later, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The likelihood of long-term use increases sharply after five days of use.
While much of the discussion around the opioid epidemic has centered on the challenges of opioid use and recovery, to get to the root of this national public health emergency, providers must focus on diminishing the risk of addiction before patients take their first dose.
How can providers best help patients reduce the probability of addiction when prescribing opioids? There are five key strategies providers should consider as a first line of protection against dependence and addiction.
Pair patients with chronic pain management coaches. Ideally, this step should be considered before an opioid is prescribed. Pain management coaches use digital therapy and motivational interviewing to help patients manage their pain without turning to opioids. When patients are prescribed a short-term dose of opioids, pain management coaches can be used to help transition patients off opioids by teaching techniques to manage pain without turning to opioids.
Partner with behavioral health experts who can identify patients who are most at risk of addiction. To avoid an opioid addiction before it starts, providers must understand the factors that increase patients’ risk of becoming addicted. These include behavioral health conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder—conditions that contribute to the experience of pain. Look for tools that can help identify patients’ behavioral health risk factors at the point of care, and establish partnerships with behavioral health professionals that help ensure patients also have access to pyschosocial treatment as needed. Some behavioral health solutions enable patients to participate in their treatment virtually, providing access to care for rural patients for whose availability to local behavioral health resources presents greater challenges.
Follow best practices on dosing limits. Ensure the morphine milligram equivalent dose and duration of treatment prescribed follow CDC and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) best practices. Consider non-opiate alternatives before prescribing opioids, and carefully evaluate whether long- or short-acting opioids should be used based on CDC and evidence-based guidance.
It’s also important to collaborate with payers and pharmacists to gain visibility into patients’ past history of opioid use and evidence of previous substance abuse prior to writing a prescription. Patients who are at high risk of becoming addicted to opioids include those who have faced challenges with addiction in the past and who frequently visit the emergency department for pain relief. This information could help determine whether opioids are prescribed and, if so, the specific dose and duration of treatment.
Proactively engage patients in their treatment. Educate patients on the use of non-opioid medications that are just as effective as opioids. When opioids are necessary, talk to patients who have been prescribed opioids for the first time on how they work, the risks of opioid use, and how to use opioids appropriately to reduce the risk of addiction. Consider this being much like informed consent before any medical procedure. Look for ways to engage patients not only in managing their use of opioids, but also in managing their physical and behavioral health, before, during and after using opioids.
Offer 24/7 access to healthcare professionals for patients who have been prescribed opioids. Doing so will provide a critical resource for patients who need help understanding their opioid prescription or feel as if they have a problem managing their response to their medication. Know your state’s Good Samaritan laws to ensure users of opioids that it is safe for them to seek care. Consider a hotline for opioid-using patients, staffed by nurses or an outside service to give patients and providers instant access to expert guidance.
Best practices for a complex challenge
As the opioid crisis continues to evolve, understanding the factors that place patients at highest risk of addiction before opioids are prescribed is key. Taking proactive measures to evaluate whether opioids are truly needed and how to best manage patients’ use of and response to these highly addictive drugs is critical to helping patients avoid serious health complications and live healthy, vibrant lives.