News Corner: How the Opioid Epidemic Is Invading Hospitals

Almost every day in the headlines there is a story about the nation’s surging heroin and opioid problem, from the plights of broken families to needing better treatment, to prevention of addiction for patients. A recent study published in the journal Health Affairs measures how this epidemic impacts hospitals. The results, discussed in an article in Kaiser Health News, concluded that “hospitalizations related to use and dependence on opioids have skyrocketed, from about 302,000 in 2002 to about 520,000 a decade later.”

Increasing Costs

In addition to an increase in the number of patients being hospitalized for opioid abuse, the cost per patient is rising—in 2012, hospitals charged almost $15 billion for opioid-related inpatient care, which is more than double the amount in 2002. Most of these dollars came from public taxes, since many of the individuals treated didn’t have insurance or were on Medicaid, reports the CDC.

Employee Opioid Use

Opioid use is already a public health matter, killing more than 28,000 people in 2014, but it’s quickly becoming an employment issue for hospitals as well.

Drug diversion is a rampant problem in the U.S. and impacts most every hospital across the country. As such, the growth of the opioid epidemic is now reflected within hospital walls, not just in patients, but in the staff as well. Despite the prevalence of this alarming practice, many hospitals don’t want to discuss it. This only perpetuates the problem, as the diverters are rarely stopped, even after they’re caught.

Some diverters may not be taking the drugs themselves, but instead taking them out of the hospital to sell on the street, exacerbating public health concerns and increasing access to these addictive medications. Experts say increased access to prescription drugs and heroin is largely what is driving the addiction problem. Ensuring that providers aren’t taking medications themselves, and also aren’t removing any medications from the hospital is absolutely essential to ensuring both patient and public safety.

What Can Be Done

From a public health perspective, there needs to be a larger emphasis placed on prevention and alternative ways to treat pain, such as physical therapy, before opioids are prescribed. Frequently, opioids or other controlled substances are viewed as the first choice for physicians treating chronic pain. However, because the body builds up tolerance over time it may be wiser for opioids to be one of the last treatment paths pursued.

When looking internally, it’s important for hospitals to have the proper technologies in place to be able to identify diversion as quickly as possible. This prevents a doctor or nurse who may be under the influence of drugs from treating patients, and halts the outflow of these controlled substances into the community. You can read more about tools to prevent and identify diversion on our blog.

To think that healthcare providers are immune from conditions that plague the general public is naïve. When hospitals consider the opioid epidemic, it’s important they aren’t just thinking in terms of their patients, but acknowledging that this growing trend is present among providers as well. Particularly given the increased access these providers have to addictive drugs, it’s imperative that hospitals have tools available to treat their patients and protect their employees.

Related Articles:

Drug Topics

New York Times

The Washington Post


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