The Opioid Epidemic is Still a Large Problem in the United States

The Opioid Epidemic is Still a Large Problem in the United States

The opioid epidemic in the United States is still being fueled by doctors and dentists prescribing dangerous levels of the drugs.  There are so many prescriptions being written, 50 percent of all Americans could have one. The United States is by far the largest consumer of opioids, consuming 80 percent of the world’s opioids with only five percent of the world’s population. With such high levels of these drugs, tens of millions of people are at risk of becoming addicted, overdosing, or dying.

Data from 2018 (the last year with complete data available) shows the prescription rate and the death rate are still very high. During the year, 20 percent of Americans had an opioid prescription filled and 40 people died every day from overdosing on the drugs. People also become addicted to the painkillers and moved to illegal and more dangerous drugs like fentanyl and heroin.

One of the largest problems with opioids is they were marketed as safe, addiction free drugs. While the companies need to be blamed, doctors share the blame. They chose to prescribe large quantities of opioids without thinking of the consequences. Even CDC guidelines are ignored, and large quantities of opioids are prescribed when better options are available.

Some doctors are aware of guidelines and research, but ignore them anyway, prescribing strong opioids for mild pain conditions like lower back pain, muscle strain, and headaches. It has gotten so bad that one in eight people with a sprained ankle are being prescribed opioids. This has caused a huge risk for opioid use disorder, with one to four percent of people developing the illness.

Dentists are also contributing to the problem. Half of the opioids prescribed by dentists are unnecessary. Over the counter drugs would be just as helpful for a lot of cases where opioids are being used. It has gotten bad enough where 10 percent of opioids are now prescribed by dentists. They are also being prescribed to young patients, who are very vulnerable to becoming addicted. One positive thing is some doctors are become more cautious when treating patients, causing prescription rates to drop.

A large cause of the opioid problem is that the culture of prescribing drugs has become too relaxed. Doctors prescribe large quantities of opioids like they are prescribing regular, non-dangerous drugs. One reason for the high opioid prescription rate is they are choosing the first option in the drop-down menu when prescribing the medication. Another reason is that opioids are an easy way to treat patients in an industry where doctors only have a limited time to treat patients. A lot more patients can be seen if doctors go to the easiest option available. Surgeons and dentists also prescribe more pills than necessary just so they don’t have to take the time to prescribe more. This creates an excess of pills and a situation where 70 percent of pills prescribed are not used properly. Another problem is doctors might be in an area where alternatives to opioids are not available, so opioids must be prescribed. Insurance companies are also more willing to pay for opioids versus other treatments like physical therapy. Until a shift in the culture happens, opioids will remain a huge problem in the country.

Briann Mann, “Doctors And Dentists Still Flooding U.S. With Opioid Prescriptions” NPR (July 17, 2020). [Link]

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