While the seriousness of the opioid crisis has certainly been apparent in recent years, President Trump’s recent declaration of it as a national health crisis brings the alarm to a whole new level.
According to the New York Times’ coverage on the announcement, nearly 90 Americans die from opioid overdoses every day, making it the most deadly drug crisis in the nation’s history.
The article notes that “the designation of a public health crisis … would allow for some grant money to be used to combat opioid abuse, permit the hiring of specialists to tackle the crisis, and expand the use of telemedicine services to treat people in rural areas ravaged by opioid use, where doctors are often in short supply.”
But combatting widespread opioid addiction, which has found its way into communities across the nation, will require a concerted effort from a great number of people. Nurses can and will need to play a particularly important role.
The Opioid Crisis in Alabama
Alabama leads the nation in prescription opioid use. In 2015, Alabama doctors wrote 5.8 million prescriptions for pain pills, which averages to 1.2 per person, well over the 0.71 national average. Deaths due to fentanyl doubled in Jefferson County in 2016. Other counties around the state, including Madison County, report troubling trends both with fentanyl on its own and heroin mixed with fentanyl being trafficked throughout the state.
“The opioid epidemic roaring across Alabama and America is endangering children and families, threatening our public safety and economic prosperity, and jeopardizing our very way of life,” said Alabama State Rep. Anthony Daniels in a July 2017 guest editorial on AL.com. He noted that while the state legislature has moved to improve prescription drug monitoring and made the anti-overdose drug Naloxone (Narcan) more available to emergency first responders and the general public, there’s still more that needs to be done to address the problem statewide.
Where Nurses Come In
So what role can nurses play? The American Nursing Association recently came out with a statement asserting what nurses can and should do in addressing the opioid crisis. In it, they proposed the following:
- That nurses, including those Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) who safely and effectively prescribe opioids, be part of ongoing efforts to properly train and educate medical professionals in opioid prescription.
- That the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 be amended to allow APRNs to treat patients with buprenorphine (Subutex), an opioid being used to treat opioid addiction in much the same way that methadone is used in heroin addiction treatment.
- That nurses and first providers, in addition to family, friends and caregivers of known opioid users, be given greater access to Naloxone, in order to increase the odds of treating overdose victims.
The ANA statement also discussed the role of researchers in developing abuse-deterrent formulations, as well as the expansion of existing prescription drug monitoring programs — moves that suggest the entire healthcare system, including its government regulators, need to contribute to the cause.
Education Is the Key
One of the most vital functions nurses will serve in the coming years is the one they’ve had in so many other prior health crises: as educators, working directly with patients to teach them about risks, symptoms, best practices and everything else bound up in helping patients to become active participants in their healthcare.
Often, opioid addictions come from prescribed medications to manage pain, not from street dealers. Through misuse or confusion on how to properly take their medication, patients develop addictions that become harder and harder to break over time.
Educating patients and their primary caregivers at the time of their initial prescriptions is an essential step in combatting opioid addiction. It’s important for patients to leave hospitals and surgical centers cognizant of how improper use can lead to addiction. It is also important for the people caring for them to be able to spot symptoms of opioid addiction and inform their loved ones’ healthcare professionals.
In a February 2017 article on how nurses can educate patients on opioid addiction, Daily Nurse offers a checklist that includes discussing alternatives to pain pills for musculoskeletal injuries (including the well-known RICE acronym), making sure patients understand there might be withdrawal symptoms from even a short period of opioid use, and setting expectations about pain control.
Opioid addiction is a massive problem, and it’s not going to be easy for Americans to slow it, let alone eradicate it entirely. The growing national awareness around the dangers of opioids and their sometimes fatal consequences is important.
But as with all public health initiatives, widespread education is important, and it can take many years for it to truly set in. We’ve made gains with previous campaigns against smoking and drunk driving, but as we know, it will take years of hard work to make significant progress.
Opioid addiction is going to take a similar level of effort, and nurses will be among those leading the way. UAH’s commitment to promoting quality healthcare across diverse, vulnerable populations means that the nurses graduating from our program will be among those leaders, and UAH believes in their ability to take the long, hard road ahead.
Learn more about the UAH online RN to BSN program.
The New York Times: Trump Declares Opioid Crisis a ‘Health Emergency’ But Requests No Funds
The New York Times: Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever
AL.com: Opioid Crisis a Threat to All Alabamians
American Nurses Association: Nursing’s Role in Addressing Nation’s Opioid Crisis
American Nurses Association: Treatment/Deterrence
Daily Nurse: How Nurses Can Help Prevent Opioid Addiction