If we want to make a dent in this overdose epidemic, we need everyone to consider themselves a first responder. We need to look at it the same as we look at CPR; we need everyone carrying naloxone. That was one of the big pushes from my Surgeon General’s advisory.
How can providers help? Well, they can coprescribe naloxone to folks on high morphine milligram equivalents (MME) who are at risk. If grandma has naloxone at home and her grandson overdoses in the garage, then at least it’s in the same house. Naloxone is not the treatment for the opioid epidemic. But we can’t get someone who is dead into treatment.
I have no illusions that simply making naloxone available is going to turn the tide, but it certainly is an important part of it.
Dr. Anderson: From your unique viewpoint, how much progress do you see in relation to the opioid epidemic? Do you think we’re approaching an inflection point, or do you think there’s a long way to go before this starts to turn around?
Dr. Adams: When I talk about the opioid epidemic, I have two angles. No.1, I want to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic – the severity of it, and how everyone can lean into it in their own way. Whether it’s community citizens, providers, law enforcement, the business community, whomever.
But in addition to raising awareness, I want to instill hope.
I was in Huntington, West Virginia, just a few weeks ago at the epicenter of the opioid epidemic. They’ve been able to turn their opioid overdose rates around by providing peer recovery coaches to individuals and making sure naloxone is available throughout the community. You save the life and then you connect them to care.
We know that the folks who are at highest risk for overdose deaths are the ones who just overdosed. They come out of the ER where we’ve watched them for a few hours and then we send them right back out into the arms of the drug dealer to do exactly what we know they will do medically because we’ve thrown them into withdrawal and they try to get their next fix.
If we can partner with law enforcement, then we can turn our opioid overdose rates around.
A story of recovery that I want to share with you is about a guy named Jonathan, who I met when I was in Rhode Island.
Jonathan overdosed, but his roommate had access to naloxone, which he administered. Jonathan was taken to the ER and then connected with a peer recovery coach. He is now in recovery and has actually become a peer recovery coach himself. Saving this one life will now enable us to save many more.
Yet we still prescribe more than 80% of the world’s opioids to less than 5% of the world’s population. So, we still have an overprescribing epidemic, but we’ve surpassed the inflection point there. Prescribing is coming down.
But another part of this epidemic was that we squeezed the balloon in one place and, as prescribing opioids went down, lots of people switched over to heroin. That’s when we really first started to see overdose rates go up.
Well, it’s important for folks to know that, through law enforcement, through partnerships with the public health community, through an increase in syringe service programs, and through other touch points, heroin use is now going down in most places.
Unfortunately, now we’re seeing the third wave of the epidemic, and that’s fentanyl and carfentanil.