Help from the Medical Industry—Some Hospitals and Doctors Now Addressing the Opioid Epidemic

Medical doctors shaking hands and talking.

The United States is struggling with a powerful addiction epidemic, a crippling health crisis revolving around drugs and alcohol. Is this a new problem? Not really.Addiction has been around for thousands of years. Maybe longer. But is this a new level of severity of the same old problem? Yes indeed. Is the problem taking on a new face and a new visage? Absolutely. Addiction may have been around since the dawn of civilization, but it’s never looked quite like this.

Today we have a drug problem that involves legal drugs just as much as it involves illegal drugs. In fact, some experts believe that our drug problem is only as bad as it is because of the illegal drugs. Apparently, the legal drugs make the biggest difference for people, creating as they do a crippling and even devastating addiction crisis that fools people and hooks them into both chemical dependence and psychological reliance.

Legal drugs like opioid painkillers and psychotropic medications are highly overused. These pills offer a strong risk for a habit-forming phenomenon, a side-effect that makes the drugs dangerous.

A Closeup Look at 21st-Century Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Let’s take a look at drug and alcohol addiction as it has appeared in the U.S. for the last fifteen to twenty years. We can all agree that substance abuse is very prominent in our culture today. But what’s caused this? Why here? Why now?

Multiple factors have contributed to this. For one, the introduction of highly addictive and mind-altering opioid pain relievers in the last few years of the 20th-century did not help. Not by a long shot.

Doctor giving pain medication to the patient.

Opioid painkillers were supposed to be the 21st-century solution to physical pain, but the plan backfired. In the late-90s, the American Medical Administration asked doctors to start addressing patients’ pain more intensively. They wanted doctors to make resolving physical pain in patients a top priority. Towards the end of the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies across the nation had come up with a “solution,” and that solution came in the form of opioid painkillers.

Doctors were told that such drugs were harmless, safe, effective, and risk-free.Doctors believed Big Pharma, and so began the mass-prescribing of pain relievers to the American people. Within just a few years, millions were addicted, and thousands were dying from overdoses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • More than forty-thousand Americans died from drug overdoses in 2014, with opioids being the main drug found in the majority of overdose cases.
  • 2015 saw more than fifty-thousand fatal overdoses, and 2016 exceeded that number with sixty-three thousand overdose deaths.
  • Numbers for 2017 are hot off the presses from the CDC, with more than seventy-two-thousand Americans dying from drug overdoses. The majority of them died from some kind of opioid, whether it was a painkiller drug, an illegal street opioid, or a synthetic/hybrid opioid that combined both pharmaceutical and illegal opioid substances.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Drug overdose deaths are now the third leading cause of preventable death (behind only smoking and obesity). Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death and injury death. Drug overdoses have exceeded fatalities from car accidents, guns, and diabetes. In fact, according to an article in U.S. News, in 2016 twenty-nine people died from drug overdoses for every one-hundred-thousand Americans, compared to twenty-five diabetes deaths for every one-hundred thousand people in that same year.

“Deaths from suicide and drug overdose are rising, and they happen at a younger age than deaths from diabetes. These deaths aren’t really accidents. They’re self-harm. We’re trying to point out that this is an even bigger problem than we realize.”

Ian Rockett, a professor emeritus of epidemiology at West Virginia University spoke on this topic in detail. He said that “Deaths from suicide and drug overdose are rising, and they happen at a younger age than deaths from diabetes. These deaths aren’t really accidents. They’re self-harm. We’re trying to point out that this is an even bigger problem than we realize.”

Hospitals in Michigan Set the Stage for Medical Reform

There is much to address and a lot to go over when we approach the prospect of reducing America’s addiction epidemic. But a great place to start is in our own hospitals which, for many Americans, is their first exposure to potentially addictive pharmaceutical drugs.

The State of Michigan has taken up the mantle to lead the way in cracking down on overprescribing and excessive use of potentially addictive pharmaceuticals in their own hospitals. An article published by the Michigan Health & Hospital Association focused on creating a comprehensive report that would recommend dozens of changes in regulation and practices, from the family practitioner level all the way up the general and specialty hospital level. It was called the Pain Management Collaborative, and the goal was to work against the opioid epidemic while still helping patients with their pain.

If every hospital followed an integrated program like the one discussed in the above citation, we’d be in far better shape in our efforts to address the addiction crisis.

Doctors Working to Make Positive Change

Medical doctor with patient.

Another location where Americans experience their first exposure to potentially addictive and mind-altering pharmaceutical drugs is in doctors’ offices. In fact, family doctors and primary care practitioners prescribe the majority of opioids in the U.S., not hospital physicians.

One physician, Dr. David Hurwitz, penned an article about the opioid crisis, and how doctors and hospitals alike can do more in their efforts to reduce the problem. He said that “Many physicians, myself included, have had very limited training in evaluating and treating pain, particularly non-cancer pain. In response to unrealistic expectations to eliminate pain as well as regulatory and patient satisfaction pressures, physicians in recent years have been prescribing more opioids, contributing to widespread opioid addiction in the United States.”

He goes on to talk about the need for focusing more on treating patients without such a strong reliance on opioid pain relievers. He also supports the use of more strict pain assessment procedures that more closely follow the CDC opioid prescribing guidelines.

Good data, to say the least. And to add to it, more research has been done that proves that when doctors and hospital practitioners know that their patients are dying from overdoses thanks to the pills that they prescribed, those physicians are more likely to reduce their prescribing trends. According to a study done on U.S. doctors and their prescribing trends, doctors who learned of the deaths patients who they had prescribed painkillers to began immediately to prescribe fewer opioids to their current patients. It was a pure and simple stimulus-response mechanism. Doctors learned of dying patients due to overdoses on pills they prescribed. Doctors immediately began to prescribe fewer pills. A morbid solution, perhaps, but a solution nonetheless.

We’re on to something here. The primary concept we’re trying to convey here is one of communication and awareness. We need our hospitals to continue to become more aware of the opioid epidemic and to continue to make changes to contend with the opioid epidemic. And we need more doctors to become aware of this as well, and to make their own changes accordingly. We’re making progress, yes, but a lot more progress needs to be made before we will be out of the woods on this one.


Clinical Review by Claire Pinelli, LADC, CCS, ICAADC, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.