administrators, to give more pain medication to make patients more satisfied. (A satisfied customer/ patient is one that may come back!) Physicians who resisted, in the name of science or safety, were too often met with threats of reduced income or job loss if patient satisfaction scores fell. In some instances, physicians were (and still are) reported to state medical boards for alleged inadequate treatment of pain.
I sincerely believe that most of those encouraging us to write more narcotics prescriptions did so out of genuine concern and compassion. People are in pain, so why not treat the pain? In medicine, where science meets suffering humanity, it’s so easy for us to say, ‘Well, it just makes sense, doesn’t it?’ We assume that our compassion will be supported by our science. It happens with infections; sure it’s probably a head cold, but what’s the harm in an antibiotic to keep the patient happy? The child bumped her head pretty hard, so what’s the problem with a CT scan, even though she looks good? The parents are customers, after all, and want a scan!
With tragic consequences, our compassion sometimes causes harm as the Law of Unintended Consequences rears its ugly head. For instance, those antibiotics for colds? They can cause dangerous allergic reactions and life-changing intestinal infections requiring hospitalization or surgery, and resulting in death. Those CT scans everyone wants? Physicians are trying to reduce the number of scans, as many of us are concerned that they may induce malignant tumors later. And those pain medications? The evidence looks pretty damning.
Addiction to prescription narcotics is growing at a terrifying rate in the U.S. Likewise, death rates from narcotic overdoses have soared. The U.S. has seen 165,000 deaths from opioid overdose between 1999 and 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html. In fact, opioid-related deaths have now surpassed deaths from firearms in the United States. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/drug- overdose-deaths-heroin-opioid-prescription-painkillers-more-than-guns/ Admittedly, some of those deaths are not due to prescription opioids but rather to injected heroin. However, many heroin addicts began their addiction issues when taking legitimately prescribed pain medication.
Sadly, seniors are not immune. Physicians don’t want to see seniors suffer, so they often give narcotics even for pain that in decades past would not have been treated with those drugs. We give them for back pain, headache, arthritis, or other less serious conditions. And we use them extensively in treatment of chronic, intractable pain. In fact, in 2015, one-third of Medicare recipients received a prescription for an opioid analgesic; some 40 million prescriptions. https://www.statnews.com/ 2016/06/22/many-opioid-prescriptions-seniors/
Furthermore, seniors not only develop addiction, not only die from accidental overdoses, their narcotic analgesics have a host of side-effects, including (but not limited to) the following: excessive sleep, impaired thinking, increased pain sensitivity, nausea, constipation, and cardiac arrhythmia. In addition, opioid drugs contribute to weakness and loss of balance and thus to falls, resulting in head and spine injury, various fractures, and other trauma. Their already impaired reflexes are dampened by their medication so that for those who still drive, it becomes an even more dangerous activity than before.
No one is immune from this devastating epidemic, not rich nor poor, not young nor old. The medical profession, the mental health community, law-enforcement, social services, churches, families, and friends all have to come together and find ways to roll back the rising tide of death and addiction, which came as an unforeseen outcome of attempting to ease suffering with compassion and science.
This problem will be highlighted this spring at an OLLI bonus event, March 31, 2017: Seniors and Opioids: Unexpected Origins of a Greenville Epidemic. I will be speaking in conjunction with James Campell of the Phoenix Center addiction and rehabilitation facility. We really hope you join us to learn more about this pressing public health crisis.