Healthcare News & Insights

Opioids are a public health crisis: What your hospital can do

The opioid crisis is one of the main public health crises in the U.S., and hospitals are being impacted in many ways. From new restrictions on opiate prescribing to increases in opioid dependence for surgical patients, healthcare organizations must adapt to the challenges created by the opioid epidemic. 

Approximately 2 million people in the U.S. have a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers, and drug overdoses are now the No. 1 cause of accidental death in the U.S., largely due to opioid abuse, according to a fact sheet from the American Society of Addiction Medicine. So it’s becoming more and more evident that hospitals must figure out a way to address the issue.

For surgical patients and those with chronic pain, opiates can provide much needed relief from discomfort and suffering. But overprescribing the drugs is a major concern, and putting a halt to this practice can save lives.

Opioid abuse as a hospital-acquired condition

A blog post for Health Affairs suggests one way to revamp how your organization views opioid dependence: Treat it as a hospital-acquired condition.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) defines three components of a hospital-acquired condition:

  1. It begins while a patient is hospitalized.
  2. It’s a high-cost and high-volume condition.
  3. It could’ve been prevented by using evidence-based guidelines.

This means it’s up to hospitals to combat the crisis and retool their strategies for dealing with opioid addiction. Health Affairs offers some long-term, cultural changes that can be put in motion to improve your organization’s treatment of patients who depend on opiates.

Educating patients about managing their expectations of pain relief after treatments can go a long way. So can training providers on:

  • the dangers of overprescribing opiates
  • treatments for opioid abuse, and
  • how to recognize patients who might be at risk for opioid abuse or overdose.

Handling opioid addictions

There are other factors to pay attention to when considering how to tackle opioid dependence at your hospital. Dealing with patients and staff who are already dependent on opioids is just as important as cutting down on opioid abuse.

For example:

  1. Offer appropriate treatment options for patients with opioid dependence. It’s not always possible for a hospital to provide the necessary treatment for a patient who’s abusing opioids. Prepare your doctors to provide referrals for outside rehab centers or programs.
  2. Handle people who exhibit drug-seeking behavior in the emergency department appropriately. Check out a patient’s medical history to find out if drug-seeking behavior is a recurring problem and keep track of how often patients come in for prescription refills.
  3. Stay vigilant about preventing drug diversion. Addictions don’t only affect patients. Staff members may also have drug abuse issues, so make sure your hospital’s drug diversion prevention policy is consistent and reviewed regularly.

Non-opioid options for pain management

In spite of the opioid crisis, patients still need pain relief and management at the end of the day. So how can your hospital think outside of the opioid-shaped box?

Virtual reality therapy is one possibility, according to Science Daily. One study found patients reported a significant drop in pain after using virtual reality equipment to watch calming videos designed to simulate experiences like helicopter rides over Iceland or swimming with whales. In that study, patients who watched standard two-dimensional nature videos also experienced less pain, although the drop wasn’t as significant.

Another study found virtual reality cut down on patients’ perception of acute pain, anxiety and general distress during procedures like blood draws.

But those are early studies, and the use of virtual reality may not be an option, for hospitals right now, especially those in low-income or rural areas.

Luckily, there are other ways to manage pain without opioids. Using trigger point injections, non-opioid medications, ultrasound-guided nerve blocks and nitrous oxide can help treat patients with chronic pain – and stop opioid abuse before it starts.

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