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Recognizing Prescription Drug Addiction

New laws, public health campaign aimed at reversing opioid analgesic abuse epidemic

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The issue of painkiller addiction and death in New York's Staten Island borough has captured the attention of the city's health department, which responded with a new television ad campaign and advocacy of a bill to increase access to a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses.

By all measures, the problem is both critical and complex. In New York City, the opioid analgesic overdose death rate increased 267% between 2000 and 2011, followed by a slight decrease in 2012. In 2012, Staten Islanders had the highest rate (10.1 per 100,000) of opioid analgesic overdose deaths - more than three times as high as all other boroughs.

Opioid analgesics include drugs such as oxycodone (e.g., Percocet or OxyContin) and hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin). Between 2008 and 2012, the number of New York City residents who filled an opioid analgesic prescription increased by 13%, from 632,000 (75 per 1,000 residents) to 740,000 (85 per 1,000 residents). In 2012, Staten Island residents filled prescriptions at a higher rate (122 per 1,000 residents) - 1.5 times more than residents of all other boroughs (86 per 1,000 residents). In 2012, a total of 190 New Yorkers died from opioid analgesic-related overdoses - about one death every other day.

The pundits have yet to find a reason for this epidemic. Whether fingers point at the stress of a poor economy during the recession, a higher-than-average number of vocational workers who become injured on the job and subsequently addicted to their painkillers or just lax law enforcement, change appears to be in the works.

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Marketing Campaign

Karyn Treval, MSN, RN, CEN, nurse manager of the emergency department at Staten Island University Hospital, can attest to positive change in 2014.

"In the ED, we've placed clearly delineated signage stating our position on the prescription of opioids upon discharge," she said. "I can honestly say there's been a decrease in the number of patients who are seeking drugs."

There are general characteristics that cue Treval and her fellow nurses into the idea a patient may be searching for a prescription.

"Think about your own mental state when you come into the ED," she said. "If you're telling the nurses not to use morphine and telling them what works for you, that's a clue."

In Staten Island, a high percentage of the people abusing drugs are teens. If she has suspicions, Treval talks to families to learn if the patient has experienced changes in sleep patterns, weight gain or loss, agitation, restlessness or recent poor performance in school and work.

The New York Department of Health is also targeting the teenage and young adult population with a television ad featuring a Staten Island parent whose 22-year-old son died of an opioid analgesic overdose.

"If misused, opioid painkillers can be just as dangerous as heroin and other illicit drugs and can lead to addiction or fatal overdose," said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, MD, at last year's unveiling of the advertising campaign. "These ads show that the national prescription painkiller problem hits close to home."

Provider Education

To specifically address opioid analgesic misuse and abuse on Staten Island, Commissioner Farley led two conferences in June for doctors in the borough.

From June to August 2013, the health department visited more than 1,000 healthcare providers across Staten Island to educate them about the department's opioid prescribing guidelines and increase awareness about opioid analgesic misuse and its health consequences. With Staten Island University Hospital, the health department co-sponsored training for physicians on the use of the effective medication buprenorphine, for treating opioid addiction. The Health Department also supplies naloxone, a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses, to overdose-prevention programs. Additionally, the New York City guidelines for prescribing opioids from EDs have been adopted by 35 EDs across the city, including Staten Island University Hospital.

"Our physicians don't set out to cause addiction," noted Treval. "They have the intent to do no harm and take care of patients in the proper manner. Their inherent goal is doing the right thing."

Treval said Staten Island University Hospital doctors and nurses are active within local chapters of their professional organizations, such as the Emergency Nurses Association.

"This epidemic is really in the forefront of the professional emergency associations in the past couple years," she noted. "It's going to require a culture change."

Increasing Access to Naloxene

In the meantime, the New York City Health Department publically urged state lawmakers to approve legislation that would increase access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse prescription opioid and heroin overdoses.

The bill would allow trained laypeople to dispense naloxone under a prescriber's authorization. If passed, a trained layperson could dispense naloxone to someone at risk of an overdose or give the naloxone to a friend or family member of that person.

Opioid overdoses most commonly involve slowed or stopped breathing. Naloxone, if administered promptly after an overdose, reverses the overdose and restores breathing in a few seconds.

Despite its benefits, naloxone is currently only accessible through New York State certified Opioid Overdose Prevention Programs. There are just 52 of these programs in New York City.

Naloxone has no known adverse side effects or potential for abuse and it has been widely used by emergency medical professionals in ambulances and emergency rooms for decades. States across the country have passed similar bills to expand access to naloxone, including California, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina and Vermont.

Since the establishment of the New York State Opioid Overdose Prevention Program in 2006, more than 650 overdose reversals have been reported statewide.

In the long-term though, the responsibility to reverse addiction lies solely with the patient.

"It's very difficult for an addicted patient to look within themselves and acknowledge a problem," said Treval. "We can suggest community counseling programs, as can their families. As clinicians, we can offer support and guidance but we can't bring them into counseling."

Robin Hocevar is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact


Don't get your hopes up reading this. The epidemic of prescription drug addicts trying to get off them still has no answer. "Suboxone(Buprenorphine/Naloxone)," created to treat opiate addiction is a scam by the drug companies to sell existing drugs at a higher cost. It's just another addictive drug that has the same withdrawl symptoms as the opiates. Remember how methadone was supposed to treat opiate drug addiction? It's similar in only trading one drug addiction for another. Methadone was not the solution, in fact, it was worse than opiates. Pro--both does last longer than opiates and buprenorphine gives no high (to addict), so you'e more functional to work; however, it can be abused and taken with other opiates without the severe sickness promised by the drug companies. Since Buprenorphine tricks the addicts brain by sitting on the opiate receptors just like opiates, take it away and withdrawl just like the opiates.
How to get off buprenorphine? Good question, tapering down is long and hard. A few others recommend going back on narcotics then tapering down dose was an easier way to get off the suboxone addiction wheel. In truth, I haven't met anyone who has successfully gotten off of Suboxone, also known as Subutex or Burprenorphine. I'm told these pills are being currently sold on the street at $30 each. If you know anyone who has a true solution or cure, I'd love to pass it on... I work with parents/young adults, most age 21-30, who were once just seeking a good time and now find their lives are ruined and controlled by those same drugs.
This is not just a problem for a certain age group, it impacts all ages, financial levels, and ethnic groups. Recently, I met a 73-year-old German-American woman, legally prescribed 16 mg (2 tabs) Prenorphine a day for pain following 4 back surgeries. She was trying to get something stronger to help with pain, stating the medicine wasn't working for her anymore. In talking more, I discovered she'd already been taking 4 tabs (32 mg *twice normal dose*) for months using "leftovers" from prior prescriptions she'd been saving (secretly sharing suicidal thoughts, as "perhaps an easy way to get out of here if she couldn't take it anymore someday." This was an intelligent, calm, fully competent, independent woman with had no idea of the impact of what she was sharing with me, or that she'd done anything wrong. She desperately knew she could not go without the pain meds and smart enough to rotate taking the newer ones first.
This is truly an epidemic affecting all of us with no end in sight. May God bless anyone (and their families /supporting professionals that care/love them) who finds themself a prescription painkiller drug addict, my prayers are with all of you.

Susan Sadler,  RN,  Public HealthMay 23, 2014
Navarre, FL


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