The raw numbers are staggering. Each day, 78 Americans die from an opioid overdose. Heroin-related overdose deaths have more than tripled in the past six years, with a 39% increase between 2012 and 2013 alone. Nearly half of all opioid overdoses involve a prescribed medicine, while sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. have quadrupled between 1999 and 2014. Clearly, there is an opioid crisis in our country and it has reached epidemic proportions. Let’s examine the role that nursing professionals can play in addressing this opioid epidemic.
There are more than three million Registered Nurses (RNs) and 834,000 Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) in the United States. These nursing professionals practice across the full spectrum of care settings placing them in key positions to educate and help patients understand the benefits and risks of pain management options. Acting as educators and patient advocates, nurses are on the front lines against opioid abuse and dependence. The troubling reality is that while the dependence on opioid prescriptions has exploded as noted above, data shows that Americans are not reporting any increase in the amount of pain being experienced. Nurses have an opportunity to play a role in introducing their patients to alternative pain management concepts that rely on a holistic approach. Discussions with patients can include therapies and other non-prescription interventions, such as anesthetic interventions, rehabilitative physical therapy, surgery, and acupuncture.
By the nature of the time spent and interaction with patients, nurses have the opportunity to play a key role in assessing and diagnosing patients battling addiction. Unfortunately, nurses first have to find a way to overcome the patient’s initial fears about acknowledging their dependence. Nurses are encouraged to speak about overdose prevention in their conversations with at-risk patients. These are difficult discussions to have but are a critical first step to helping the patient to recognize the dangers. To help, the American Nurses Association and other organizations are pledging their commitment to expanding training opportunities for nurses and prescribers.
Another front in this battle against the opioid epidemic can be found in legislative houses across the country, and at the national level in Washington, DC. Nurses can play a key role in elevating the discussion of opioid dependence and keep it in front of lawmakers. Much like the fight against heart disease and cancer, raising the levels of awareness about the dangers of opioid addiction will result in needed legislative changes. In May, the House of Representatives spent several days considering a range of bills related to the addressing the opioid epidemic. Insiders are hopeful that these bills will arrive on the President’s desk for a signature within the next several months.
Quelling the rising tide of opioid-related deaths is a daunting task. Nurses can and will play a key role in reversing the horrific trends, but they are not going to be alone in the fight. Additional funding for education and training, increased reliance on utilizing data to track a patient’s prescription history, and other deterrent strategies are all needed to make the necessary difference.
We are interested in your thoughts about the opioid epidemic. As a healthcare professional, what do you feel is needed to reverse these alarming trends of abuse and addiction? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below, or visit us on our Facebook page.