The opioid crisis continues to wreak a huge toll in human pain, suffering and death. Drug overdoses in the U.S. claimed 72,000 lives last year alone. That’s a dramatic increase — over double, in fact — from the 33,000 opioid-related fatalities documented here just three short years ago.
Millions of Americans continue to develop addictions to prescription opioids, often through no fault of their own. Previous generations of physicians — under the dubious guidance of major pharmaceutical manufacturers — often over-prescribed these powerful and highly addictive medications under the philosophy of treating pain as the fifth vital sign.
Battling the opioid epidemic presents many challenges. One issue preventing treatment involves the American for-profit health care system, which has left many who need addiction treatment lacking the coverage they require to reach recovery. Another factor complicating the crisis involves the fact that the new rules governing the prescribing of opioids place undue burdens on chronic pain patients who already struggle to have a decent quality of life.
Advances in technology, however, hold promise in combating the opioid crisis. Here’s a look at how some technological advances already act to alleviate the suffering of opioid-dependent individuals, as well as how future developments may help professionals find a cure for opioid addiction.
Improved Mental Health Services
Since one of the factors complicating the opioid crisis involves lack of access to mental health services to aid addicts in recovery, technology has stepped in to expand crisis counseling services, even for those lacking health insurance or adequate funds to meet co-pays and deductibles. Because those suffering from addiction often experience work and financial difficulties, it is essential to expand mental health services to the low-income population.
One way technology assists in this endeavor to make mental health services accessible to all involves the use of telemedicine: online counseling services for modest fees and phone and text chat line support for those in crisis.
Providing advanced training for crisis line workers on how to best deal with opioid-related calls can only save lives. Many people struggling with addictions experience denial at first, and text support lines provide an anonymous way for wary individuals to reach out for assistance without revealing personal information.
Linking emergency services to these text lines likewise saves lives. For example, the nation’s largest crisis text line, 741-741, reserves the right to contact law enforcement authorities in rare cases when counselors determine a risk to life. Getting first responders to those who may have overdosed purposefully or accidentally can save many lives.
In addition to improving text and phone crisis lines, another way to expand access to mental health services is online counseling programs. These help expand mental health care access to rural areas where psychiatrists are lacking. Patients report to a regular physician’s office where nurse practitioners or other trained professionals measure patient weight and blood pressure to determine medication needs while the patient meets with their psychiatrist via a computer screen.
For those with adequate resources, online counseling services abound for relatively modest fees, compared to in-person treatment. These services offer a bonus in allowing patients to access counseling outside regular business hours. For those without sufficient means to pay for professional care, online support groups provide some relief and camaraderie.
Preventing Doctor Shopping
One common technique addicts use to get a prescription drug fix involves going to various physicians in hopes of obtaining more than one opiate prescription which they then fill at different pharmacies, doubling or tripling their medication supply. Previously, little conformity across medical records systems existed, and the electronic records which did exist weren’t shared among practitioners, enabling doctor shopping to occur.
Today, prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) allow medical professionals to share medical records on a coordinated platform that alerts physicians when a patient receives a duplicate prescription from another practitioner. This system prevents patients from filling multiple prescriptions at various pharmacies, giving them access to fatal amounts of opioid medications.
While PDMPs remain in their infancy, more and more practitioners across America switch to using such a database daily. When the unified network completes, physicians will know which patients have attempted to fill multiple prescriptions and recommend either inpatient or outpatient addiction recovery programs.
Using Technology to Track Street Drug Sources
In addition to physicians and pharmacies, law enforcement agencies likewise harness the power of technology to fight the opioid crisis. One emerging technology allows law enforcement to track the locations of those who call 911 to report overdoses of heroin. By identifying central locations of illicit drug traffickers, law enforcement can control access to street opioids such as heroin and fentanyl by arresting these dealers.
This 911 drug tracking advance also provides law enforcement the tools they need to locate those addicted to opioids and transport them to inpatient treatment facilities where the addicted individual can detox and begin the road to recovery. When dealing with this population, law enforcement agencies should exercise caution to emphasize addiction treatment, not punitive measures that result in incarceration.
Healing from the Opioid Crisis
As technology progresses, physicians will regain the freedom to prescribe opioid medications when appropriate for chronic pain sufferers using advances such as PDMPs to prevent overdoses. Identifying those struggling with opioid addiction will lead to faster interventions to aid, not punish, recovering addicts. By harnessing technology to intervene and treat addiction, we will save lives.