Close up on a pile of yellow pain pills

Addressing the Opioid Epidemic Starts with How We Treat Pain

As a nurse practitioner in a busy suburban emergency department, pain is my job. Pain is one of the most common reasons people come to an emergency department (ED). It could be abdominal pain, chest pain, back pain or even emotional pain, including depression or suicidal ideations. Pain is a driver for people seeking medical care. We have made pain into a vital sign, and we ask, “How would you rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?” a mandatory question for any patient who steps through our door.

This whole concept evolved circa 1987 when the Institute of Medicine urged healthcare providers to use a quantified measure for pain. It gained even more traction in 1990 when then president of the American Pain Society, Dr. Mitchell Max, called for improved means to assess and treat pain. The term “oligoanalgesia” gained popularity in the published literature, meaning that we weren’t giving enough pain medication to patients in the ED, in clinics or in any other healthcare setting. Healthcare providers responded. We asked about and we thought, more effectively treated pain to address this issue.

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blurry, shadowy human figure in black and white

Measuring the Opioid Crisis: The Need for Standardized Cause-of-Death Reporting

By J. Alexander Short

All too often, the modern opioid epidemic is reduced to numbers. Over 70,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in 2017. This marked a substantial increase from the more than 63,000 deaths reported in 2016. So many news articles, books, and even policymakers depend on these numbers as an accurate measure of the opioid crisis. However, can we rely on their accuracy?

Unfortunately, there are surprising inconsistencies in the reporting of drug overdose deaths that warrants further investigation. Read More

The Emergency Department is The “New” Frontier of Public Health

I had always considered my field of expertise to be emergency medicine. I worked through the ranks as an emergency medical technician, then onward as a paramedic, which included a nine-year stint on a busy medical helicopter. I worked in disaster medicine, and was the associate director of a Harvard-affiliated disaster medicine fellowship in Boston. My current practice is as a nurse practitioner in a busy suburban emergency department (ED) and I am still active in emergency medical services as a SWAT medic and as an educator.

The emergency part of what I do is the exciting part —the part that stimulates the excitatory neurotransmitters that flood the brain, preparing it to act quickly and concisely.

We are selling ourselves short, however, when we label this role as “emergency” providers. Instead, “public health provider” is a much more appropriate term to use, because emergency departments and those who provide care there are really public health workers.

All of us who practice in emergency medicine know that real emergencies are few and far between. Our day-to-day is much more mundane. We deal with many urgent issues as well as some less urgent, primary care problems. We may even spend time filling printer paper or bringing a patient their lunch. We may help to find someone a homeless shelter, send a family home with warm coats for the kids, or pack up a bag with food and toiletries for a young girl we feel is being trafficked.

In light of all this, the purpose and the policies of the emergency department need to be redefined. Read More

hand reaching for blue pills

Should Non-opioid Analgesics have “Opioid Sparing” as a Label Claim?

Most meetings of the FDA’s Anesthetic and Analgesic Drug Products Advisory Committee (AADPAC) are held to review a New Drug Application (NDA), usually for a novel opioid preparation. But, on November 15, the AADPAC discussed the concept and implications of “opioid sparing” as a potential product label claim for a non-opioid type of medication.

Although trends in outpatient opioid prescriptions appear to be heading in an encouraging direction (see figure below), the demonstration that a non-opioid medication could further decrease the overall use of opioids for acute pain has obvious implications for the amount of opioids prescribed and taken by patients who undergo painful surgical procedures. This will also decrease exposure in the community where prescribed opioids may become diverted for recreational use.

In recent years, some across-the-board measures (e.g. state laws that limit the duration of prescribed opioids) have attempted to reduce opioid prescribing, but as the FDA emphasized in their presentation at the meeting, these “one size fits all” strategies will not account for individual patient variation, and may lead to inadequate pain treatment in some patients. Read More

close up of the back of a baby's head while breastfeeding

Toxic Breastmilk: When Substance Abuse Relapse Means Death for Baby

Recently, a nursing mother in Pennsylvania made national headlines when her infant died from ingesting a combination of fatal drugs through breastmilk.  According to the coroner’s report, the infant died from a combination of methadone, methamphetamine, and amphetamine toxicity. The Bucks County District Attorney charged the mother, Samantha Jones, who also has a two-year old child, with criminal homicide. According to published reports, Jones was undergoing Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) and receiving doses of methadone to treat her addiction to opioid painkillers.

Multiple commentators swiftly voiced opposition to the District Attorney, decrying the criminal charges against Jones, arguing it is “highly problematic” to levy criminal charges against a person undergoing treatment for Substance Use Disorder.

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Congress’s opioids package and the politics of the IMD exclusion

At the end of September, the Senate passed a final version of an expansive legislative package designed to tackle the United States opioid epidemic. The package contains a broad range of policy approaches to the crisis, including enhanced tracking of fentanyl in the U.S. mail system, improved access to Medication Assisted Treatment and addiction specialists, and lifted restrictions on telemedicine and inpatient addiction treatment. The package, which now sits on President Trump’s desk, is widely expected to be signed into law.

The legislative effort has been lauded as a rare act of bipartisanship in an otherwise-polarized Washington.

The Washington Post called the set of bills “one of the only major pieces of legislation Congress is expected to pass this year.” A Time headline declared that “Opioid Bill Shows Congress Can Still Work Together.” Praise of this across-the-aisle effort is merited: the Senate voted for the set of bills 98-1, and the House voted for it 393-8.

While critics have rightfully pointed out that the package does not provide for enough increased spending to address the crisis, with more than 72,000 people dying from drug overdoses in 2017, the time is ripe for a collaborative approach to the opioid crisis, and any effort helps.

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Commentary: Do We Really Need a New, More Powerful Opioid?

The FDA’s Analgesic and Anesthetic Drug Advisory Committee (AADPAC), of which I am a member, met October 12 to discuss a controversial New Drug Application (NDA) for a powerful opioid called sufentanil, manufactured by AcelRx.

Like fentanyl, sufentanil is a short-acting synthetic opioid, but approximately 5 to 10 times more potent. In the midst of the current opioid crisis, why would anyone think that the availability of another powerful opioid is a good idea?

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baby held in mother's hands in lap

US Legislators Take a Scattered Approach to Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

 By J. Alexander Short

Pennsylvania is the latest state to enact legislation in reaction to the growing impact the opioid epidemic has on infants. Governor Tom Wolf signed H.B. 1232 in June, effectively requiring hospital officials to notify child protective services when children are born affected by the mother’s substance abuse or affected by withdrawal symptoms as a result of prenatal drug exposure.

Such outcomes generally fall within the parameters of neonatal abstinence syndrome (“NAS”), a group of health problems that occur in newborns who were exposed to drugs while in the mother’s womb.  This legislation brings Pennsylvania into full compliance with the 2003 Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.

This legislative response makes sense.

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Are we speaking the same language? An alphabet soup of acronyms in the opioid epidemic

By Stephen Wood

Medication Replacement Therapy (MRT), Medication Assisted Therapy (MAT). Opioid Substitution Treatment (OST). Opioid Replacement Therapy (ORT). Opioid Agonist Therapy (OAT). This confusing array of acronyms are all terms that have made their way into the dictum of patients, healthcare providers, policy leaders, politicians and journalists —and new ones pop up every day.

Buprenorphine Enabled Recovery Pathway (BERP) is one I just came up with but could just as easily make its way into the menagerie of acceptable buzzwords for using an agonist-antagonist (or other drug) for the treatment of substance use disorder.

It doesn’t stop there.

Safe Consumption Facilities (SCF), Safer Injection Facilities (SIF), another SIF in Supervised Injection Facilities, Supervised Injection Sites (SIS), Medically Supervised Injection Sites (MSIS), and Drug Consumption Sites (DCS) only begin to round out the list of areas that people who use intravenous drugs can go to use in a safe, clean and supported environment.

We see these terms bantered about in the media, among healthcare providers, legislators and policy makers. We hear them from patients with SUD, their families as well as advocate organizations. These terms are in published research reports and clinical studies. To even the savviest person though, it is a confusing alphabet soup of acronyms that are all trying to describe an array of programs, possibly something similar or maybe even the same.

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