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Nonmedical Use and Addiction: Distinctions in the Opioid Crisis

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A new study coming out soon in the Annual Review of Public Health attempts to reframe our discussion regarding the opioid crisis. Often, we focus attention on nonmedical use of opioids. Those of us in the insurance world know that while nonmedical use is a serious societal issue, it's only one part of the opioid problem.

From the study (among the authors of which is Andrew Kolodny, one of the most well-known and recognized voices of reason in the public dialogue around the opioid crisis):
"Policy makers and the media often characterize the opioid crisis as a problem of nonmedical opioid pain reliever abuse by adolescents and young adults. However, several lines of evidence suggest that addiction occurring in both medical and nonmedical users, rather than abuse per se, is the key driver of opioid-related morbidity and mortality in medical and nonmedical opioid pain reliever users."  

This distinction is critical because it focuses our attention, resources and solutions in a different direction (or, at least, in more directions) than if we were to simply assume that opioid overdose deaths are driven by diversion, misuse and abuse among young people.

The reality is that there are likely as many as 5 million people in this country addicted to prescription opioids and as many as half of them are receiving legitimate prescriptions from legitimate doctors for legitimate pain. Not all chronic pain patients on long-term opioid therapy will exhibit drug-seeking or otherwise aberrant behavior.

Another important insight from the paper is the analogy that Dr. Kolodny and his colleagues draw between the methods of combating other public health crises and the approach we should consider taking toward the opioid crisis:

"... our purposes is to demonstrate that prevention strategies employed in epidemiologic responses to communicable and noncommunicable disease epidemics apply equally well when the disease in question is opioid addiction. Interventions should focus on preventing new cases of opioid addiction (primary prevention), identifying early cases of opioid addiction (secondary prevention), and ensuring access to effective addiction treatment (tertiary prevention)."  

We have a long way to go in all three categories, but papers like this push our collective thinking in the right direction. Worth a read.

Michael Gavin is president of Prium, a managed care company for the workers' comp industry. This column was reprinted with his permission from the firm's Evidence Based blog.

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