Opinion Columns & Blogs

The opioid epidemic

An all-time record 52,404 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2015, according to the latest data released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once rare, these avoidable deaths are now more common than auto-accident fatalities or gun-inflicted homicides and suicides.

Some 80 percent of the drug-related deaths were due to misuse of opioids, a category that includes not only illicit substances such as heroin and synthetic fentanyl but also legal pain medications such as OxyContin and Vicodin, which are used for chronic pain as well as for short-term care after surgery or dental work. Indeed, the prescription opioid category accounted for the largest share of opioid deaths, at 17,536.

This must end. A key condition for that is for doctors to become much more careful in the way they distribute these powerful pills, which are still widely prescribed for non-cancer pain, notwithstanding what is now a mountain of evidence that the drugs are far more addictive than manufacturers once led physicians and patients to believe.

The CDC’s latest guidelines expressly remind doctors that opioids are not “first-line or routine therapy” for chronic non-cancer pain, and that they should be prescribed only in low dosages and small amounts, after non-opioid alternatives have been tried.

Yet these best practices are not followed in a large minority of cases, according to a new and innovative survey of long-term opioid users by The Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Specifically, 38 percent of patients reported that their doctors had not even discussed alternative treatments, let alone attempted them; 35 percent said their doctors did not discuss the risk of addiction; and 30 percent said they did not even hear about side effects. Half of patients noted that they were concurrently prescribed opioids with anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants, which the CDC also discourages.

Small wonder that fully one-third of the opioid users surveyed described themselves as either addicted to or physically dependent on the drugs.

If progress is to be made, American medicine must redouble its commitment to sound prescribing practices. The CDC guidelines show the way.