Fighting the Opioid Epidemic: How Nurses Can Help

Fighting the Opioid Epidemic: How Nurses Can Help

Shane Parker, RN
Co-founder and Chief Nursing Officer

A new opioid epidemic is overtaking the nation, claiming thousands of lives in its wake. Many blame an overabundance of prescription painkillers for this sudden spike in opioid addiction. Instead of trying to diagnose nonspecific pain, doctors instead are just writing a prescription to help the patient feel better.

In the process, the patient ends up becoming dependent on the medication and eventually turns to harder drugs to satiate their need, such as heroin.

As of 2015, experts estimate that 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. In fact, since 1999, the number of opioid overdose deaths has quadrupled. Opioids are involved in six out of ten overall drug deaths, a staggering number that puts the crisis into perspective.

Luckily, there are plenty of steps that can be taken to put an end to this dilemma. The charge against opioid abuse must start where it began – in the healthcare industry. While doctors are starting to write less prescriptions, there are also things that nurses can do to help end these deadly addictions.

Help Educate Doctors on New Prescribing Guidelines

Across the country, lawmakers are rolling out new opioid prescribing guidelines to help reduce unnecessary use of these medications. Unfortunately, not all doctors pay attention to these new regulations and continue their old habits of prescribing.

Therefore, it is up to nurses to educate doctors on the dangers of prescribing opioids. Some states, like Pennsylvania, are paying nurses to provide voluntary visits to doctors’ offices in an attempt to get doctors to change. The Pennsylvania program reaches over 2,600 doctors. These visits can include scientific facts on the opioid epidemic, as well as tangible materials, such as pocket cards to give to patients that explain why they can’t get a certain prescription.

Spread Awareness of Naloxone

Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that can be used in the event of an overdose. It works to nullify the effects of the opioids, preventing the person from experiencing dangerous side effects. It’s especially important for potent drugs like heroin and fentanyl that are easy to overdose on.

Because many people do not know about naloxone, nurses can work to spread awareness of this drug throughout the community. In addition to carrying a dose with them wherever they go, nurses should advocate for EMS, police officers, and even normal citizens to keep a dose with them in case they encounter someone having an overdose.

Understand the Role of Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs

Another way that lawmakers are trying to regulate opioid prescriptions is by creating Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs). With this type of system, doctors must register within the system and make a record any time they prescribe an opioid to a specific patient.

Patients and doctors can then be tracked easier to make sure doctors aren’t over-prescribing and patients aren’t doctor-hopping. Nurses can help to make sure an office is following these guidelines as well as report any suspicious behavior they might notice by a doctor or patient. For example, if a patient keeps coming back and asking for more medicine and the doctor complies, they might want to contact the managers of the PDMP in their area for help.

Recommend Medication-Assisted Treatment Programs

There is a way to use medication to stop the opioid epidemic. Drugs like methadone or buprenorphine work by blocking the effects of other opioids. This prevents a user from getting high while also fulfilling their need for having opioid receptor stimulation. By going on to these medications to wean themselves off worse drugs, patients can work on changing their lifestyle and ending their addiction.

While Advance Practice Registered Nurses can’t prescribe these medications, they can advocate for their prescription. Getting more people in these types of programs could reduce levels of addiction.

Overall, fighting this epidemic will take more than the help of nurses. The entire medical community is going to need to band together and make a strong push to educate patients on the fatal dangers of opioid addiction.

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