To call it an epidemic in the United States is not an exaggeration. Opioid-related deaths have risen more than five times in two decades. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that class of powerful drugs — which includes not only illegal substances such as heroin but also synthetics such as fentanyl and legally available pain relievers, such as oxycodone and codeine — in 2016 accounted for more than 42,000 deaths across the country: the most ever. At least 40 percent of those deaths were attributed to prescription opioids, per numbers from the Centers for Disease Control.
The economic impact is undeniable; a recent analysis reports that the cost burden of opioid abuse–related health problems, overdoses and deaths has exceeded $1 trillion since 2001 — in an ever-climbing curve.
The crisis touches every socioeconomic level and every corner of the country. Strategies to combat it come from government on all levels: federal, state and local. The White House just announced some initiatives. But states, cities and towns are tackling the problem more concretely:
- More Massachusetts municipalities are taking pharmaceutical companies to court seeking compensation for the damage wrought by the opioid crisis. The number of plaintiffs has grown to more than 40 since Greenfield became the first town in the Commonwealth to file a lawsuit late last year.
- The numbers behind the opioid epidemic's toll in Arizona are grim: The Grand Canyon State has seen more than 950 suspected opioid-related deaths and 6,200 overdoses over the past nine months, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Phoenix has also taken a financial hit in paying to jail addicts and offenders, Mayor Greg Stanton said. Through legal action, the city hopes to recover some of those resources.
- Nevada is applying a get-tough approach to the state’s opioid-abuse problem. A new state law restricts the prescribing of highly addictive opioids such as oxycodone and tightens reporting requirements on patient information, prescription rates and overdoses.
- Oregon lawmakers passed a measure earlier this month that, among other steps, launches a pilot program putting opioid overdose victims into an immediate treatment program.
Here are more ways in which we’re seeing companies and communities strive to end the epidemic:
Education and awareness are key:
- Indiana has enough bottles of opioid painkillers in circulation for nearly every resident to have their own, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts indicate if the opioid-related death toll continues to rise, it could exceed 15,000 in the next decade in Indiana alone. The crisis has forced businesses, organizations, agencies, universities, medical professionals, law enforcement and the judicial system to band together in new ways.
- In Utah, Intermountain Healthcare has launched an initiative to promote awareness, education and safe use of prescription opioids. For public awareness and education, Intermountain providers partnered with community leaders to introduce “new thinking” about prescriptions, discuss the dangers of opioids, and suggest ways to talk to patients about the issue.
Companies are putting new technologies to the test to help in the fight:
- Multiple medical-technology players in Minnesota are developing alternate solutions that ideally will alleviate misuse of the addictive painkillers by controlling pain through neuromodulation devices — tools that treat pain by modifying the nervous system using electricity or targeted drug application.
- A startup in Atlanta has created a pill bottle called Take As Directed (tad) that dispenses a set dosage of a medication only when a patient is supposed to take it. The bottle also has a biometric fingerprint scanner so no one but the patient can access the medication. Take As Directed also streams all that data to the cloud, so clinicians and researchers can learn more about how people take medicine.
Other strategies involve innovative thinking:
- A Seattle-based biotech startup is getting favorable results so far in using venom obtained from a snail native to the Caribbean to treat chronic pain in a way that could supplant opioid-based therapies.
- Philadelphia-area police officers were concerned that their canine colleagues helping them sniff out opioids could die in the line of duty, so they took training sessions to learn how to protect their pals. “The training helps keep the dogs safe on the job so they can help keep their communities safe,” said a veterinarian who conducted the training.