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We still have an opioid epidemic - here is what you can do to help

Posted March 13, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT

Securing your medication in your home and properly disposing of leftover medications can keep them from being misused. (Leigh Anne/Big Stock Photo)

This article was written for our sponsor, Alliance Health.

The opioid epidemic has resulted in the deaths of more than 14,500 North Carolinians since 1999 and 47,000 people nationwide. Opioid-related deaths and overdoses are part of a national crisis that our state, like many others, is still struggling with.

To paint a picture of its severity, opioid-related deaths outnumber those from heroin and cocaine combined. Additionally, 32 percent of people are unable to recognize the signs of prescription drug misuse, which is also cause for concern.

For the first time in five years, North Carolina has experienced a drop in accidental opioid-related overdose deaths. While this is a step in the right direction, Dr. Carlyle Johnson worries this downtrend may encourage complacency within the general public who think the problem is well on its way to being solved.

"The opioid crisis is still killing more people every year than died in the entire Vietnam War. It's still a major cause of accidental death and it's affecting our life expectancy rate," said Johnson, director of Provider Network Strategy and Initiatives at Alliance Health. Alliance Health is a managed care organization for public behavioral health that serves citizens in Durham, Wake, Cumberland and Johnston counties.

"We tend to focus on the opioid deaths, but there's also a tremendous impact on societal productivity, on families, on the foster care system and on the judicial system," Johnson emphasized.

Johnson pointed out the opioid epidemic affects almost everyone, whether directly or indirectly. For example, many people in the criminal justice system are dealing with a substance use disorder, a mental illness or both, and taxpayers are bearing the costs of increased incarceration.

Addiction impacts families, children can be left without functioning parental units and the economy suffers when people are unable to contribute to the community through gainful employment. The opioid epidemic is a national crisis because its trickle effects can be seen and felt throughout society.

While a daunting problem, there are ways both individuals and medical professionals can help. A few years ago, Alliance Health looked closely at the North Carolina State Opioid Action Plan to see where and how it could contribute to fighting this epidemic. The primary role for Alliance in addressing the opioid crisis has been to expand access to evidence-based treatment, and it has increased the number of uninsured individuals receiving treatment by more than 1000 percent.

In addition to its role in expanding treatment availability, Alliance saw a need for more public information about ways to address the crisis.

"We know this is a community problem. There are things being done by the state, like the STOP [Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention] Act, law enforcement efforts, and so on," Johnson said. "We're not in the law enforcement business, and we don't oversee physicians or pharmacists, but what we can do is educate the public. We can also help get medication out of places where it may be diverted."

What Individuals Can Do to Help

Alliance Health believes when it comes to the opioid epidemic, we can all do something. Taking action to help combat the opioid crisis can be as simple as following the steps below.

Lock or Properly Dispose of Medications

"Sixty-seven percent of people who misuse prescription medications get them from friends and family, and only 5 percent of children who misuse prescription medications say they get them from a stranger, a drug dealer or the Internet," AllianceforAction.org states. "Securing your medication in your home and properly disposing of leftover medications can keep them from being misused."

Making sure that your medications don't become part of the problem is essential. Get rid of them properly through disposal sites and other options.

Know About Naloxone

Naloxone is an antidote to opioid overdose and reverses the effects of opioids by blocking opioid receptor sites. Naloxone can restore normal breathing in a person who has stopped breathing or has slowed breathing as a result of opioid overdose.

A quick response when using naloxone is essential and it can be administered by a family member, friend or caregiver. The antidote begins working in two to five minutes and stops the effects of opioids for up to 90 minutes. However, the effects are temporary and professional medical treatment should be sought out immediately.

There are three FDA-approved forms of naloxone, two of which can be used at home for emergency situations.

Recognize Red Flags

As mentioned, many people are unaware of the signs of opioid misuse and addiction. Be sure you are aware of and recognize the following warning signs in people who may be misusing these medications:

  • Excessive mood swings
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Taking higher doses than prescribed
  • Poor decision making
  • Getting different prescriptions from more than one doctor

What Medical Professionals Can Do to Help

Medical professionals are in a unique position to help combat the opioid epidemic and can help prevent addiction and promote recovery.

Continuing Education

Staying informed on current best practices is a must for medical professionals. Staying up-to-date on things like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention best practices for opioid prescribing and other guidelines can help doctors and pharmacists remain attuned. The N.C. Association of Pharmacists offers several free continuing education webinars for pharmacists.

Screening, Intervention and Referral

Medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, mental health providers and pharmacists can use the "Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT)" approach to help people with or at risk of developing a substance use disorder before they need specialized treatment.

"Primary care centers, hospital emergency rooms, trauma centers and other community settings serve as opportunities for early intervention with at-risk substance users before more severe consequences occur," stated AllianceforAction.org. "In the SBIRT process, individuals making their annual visits to providers complete a standardized questionnaire about risky substance use behaviors. Based on their answers, they may receive intervention feedback, motivation and advice, or referral to treatment if warranted."

Recognize Red Flags

There are some red flags only a medical professional may pick up on. If you are a doctor or a pharmacist, be on the lookout for the following:

Signs of addiction which include:

  • Loss of control
  • Craving or preoccupation with use
  • Continued use despite the consequences
  • Seemingly forged or altered prescriptions
  • Prescriptions originating from outside the immediate geographic area
  • Cash only payments
  • Inconsistent or early fills
  • Multiple prescribers

As Gov. Roy Cooper said, "The opioid crisis is one of the biggest challenges we face across our state." However, with the help of everyone in our community coming together to fight this epidemic, we have a higher chance of overcoming it.

This article was written for our sponsor, Alliance Health.

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