Nurses and the Opioid Crisis

The numbers are shocking. Reportedly, an average of 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Only half of these deaths result from a prescribed drug. Sales of prescription opioids nearly quadrupled in the four-year period ending in 2014. And deaths from heroin overdose have more than tripled since 2010.

The seriousness of the current opioid crisis has motivated the ANA to develop resources for nurses who may be positioned to assess, identify, and manage patients battling an addiction. The ANA supports the following components of an integrated strategy to prevent overdoses and advocate for patients who are at risk:

  • Prescription drug monitoring programs. These state-run, electronic databases aggregate a patient’s prescription history, allowing pharmacists or providers to identify those who may be on the path to abuse or addiction. The goal is to reduce inappropriate prescribing of opioids
  • Medication-assisted treatment. These programs combine behavioral counseling with medications like methadone or buprenorphine to help patients manage withdrawal issues.
  • Access to Naloxone. Nurses can all advocate for expanded access to Naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of opioid drugs and potentially save the life of a patient who has taken an overdose. First responders like police, firefighters, and paramedics should have ready access to this drug—as should the family, friends, and caregivers of people who have a known substance abuse issue.
  • Education for advanced practice nurses. In many states, nurse practitioners can prescribe opioids. Continuing education can help to ensure they do so safely effectively, without denying appropriate pain management to patients who need it.
  • Deterrent drug formulations. The pharmaceutical industry should take the lead in developing opioid formulations that are more difficult to abuse. Some experts believe this approach will make it more likely that people with a legitimate need for opioids will have continued access to them. Deterrent formulations work by a variety of mechanisms that create barriers to recreational use.
  • Holistic pain management strategies. Nurses should have knowledge of and be able to direct patients to non-opioid alternatives, including physical therapy, surgery, cognitive behavioral therapy, regional anesthetic therapies, and complementary therapies like acupuncture.

True advocacy goes beyond advocating for the personalized needs of individual patients. It also means advocating for policies that protect and support every healthcare consumer who relies on our current healthcare system. Nurses have an ethical responsibility to approach broader advocacy issues as a united group of nursing professionals.

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