How a state of emergency could impact the opioid epidemic


The opioid epidemic isn't going anywhere soon. Deaths due to opioid abuse have risen greatly over the past decade, and STAT News has forecasted that opioid abuse will claim another 500,000 lives over the next 10 years.

A handful of states have already declared a public health crisis, and many medical professionals would like to see national action. Here's how a state of emergency could impact the opioid epidemic:

What is a state of emergency?

A state of emergency is generally considered a temporary expansion of government power, often with little or no oversight. In most cases, a state of emergency is declared after a natural disaster or other short-term occurrence such as a riot. In the case of a public health emergency, such as the outbreak of a deadly virus, this sort of provision grants additional funding and legislative power, according to PBS.

In some instances, a state of emergency may even grant the government the ability to redirect military personnel in place of other qualified professionals. But how would this apply to the opioid epidemic? So far, six states - Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts and Virginia - have already declared some form of public health crisis, offering clear examples of how such a tactic could save patient lives.

The opioid epidemic encompasses heroin use, as well as abuse of prescription medication.The opioid epidemic encompasses heroin use, as well as abuse of prescription medication.

How would a state of emergency help patients?

In some of the states listed above, a state of emergency has allowed greater access to naloxone, the drug that can reverse a deadly overdose. In other states, it has allowed government officials to collect reports on overdoses, strengthening their legal case for further action. PBS also reported that, in Arizona, about 1,000 law enforcement officers have been trained to administer naloxone.

Together, these represent a good step forward toward the reduction of opioid abuse. But the epidemic isn't confined to these six states - it's a national problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999. West Virginia has been hit particularly hard. There, 41.5 out of every 100,000 people die from an opioid overdose.

While many healthcare providers have been vocal in their support of a nation-wide state of emergency, the federal government has  responded with mixed signals. In early August, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price stated that there is no need to introduce a national state of emergency. Shortly thereafter, on Aug. 10, President Donald Trump publicly - but unofficially - declared a national state of emergency. However, no formal action has happened yet. Until the official paperwork is complete, each state must decide the best way forward.

What can physicians do to help?

Educating patients about proper medication use could help some people avoid a dangerous addiction. In addition to talking with patients, physicians should provide other educational materials about these types of drugs.

When it comes to treating people with addiction, there's still more to be done. NPR reported that medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction is underutilized across the country. This is partly due to strict drug regulations, but may also be attributed to patient embarrassment. It's often difficult to ask for help.

Offering a listening ear and caring demeanor could make some patients more comfortable talking about their issues with drugs. Remaining sensitive to this nation-wide problem is something all doctors should strive achieve.

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