Prescription-painkiller epidemic is spurred by societal shift, experts say: People think every problem has a pill for an answer

By Molly Burchett
Kentucky Health News

The prescription-painkiller epidemic stems partly from an evolution of society’s views toward pain and how to deal with it, said experts at “The Different Faces of Substance Abuse” conference in Lexington Jan. 23-24.

“The entire society’s viewpoint of pain and the management of pain has completed shifted,” said Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency physician and conference panelist.

Pain is considered the fifth vital sign, after temperature, pulse, blood pressure and respiratory rate, but it is the only sign that is subjective, which complicates the problem, said Stanton, because patient satisfaction is associated with the amount of drugs the provider prescribes. If an emergency-room doctor suggests exercise to combat back pain, he said the patient’s reaction might be, “You might as well ask a man to deliver a baby.”

The substance-abuse problem shouldn’t be laid at the feet of prescribers because patients think there is a pill out there for every problem when sometimes the answer is non-prescription ibubrofen and an ice pack, said Van Ingram, executive director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy.

“This is a complicated issue,” Ingram said. “It’s easy to be against heroin, and it’s easy to be against cocaine. But prescription opioids are things that many people need to live and need to improve their quality of life at the end of life.”

Patients need to understand how much a doctor can or should do, said Dr. Helen Davis, conference panelist and chair of the Gov. Steve Beshear’s KASPER Advisory Council. “Patients come in to the doctor’s office expecting a silver bullet . . . but when looking at pain, the goal isn’t to make the patient pain-free,” she said. “The goal is to reduce the pain enough that they can have systematic and functional relief to go about their daily living.”

Davis said doctors and nurses must change their culture to become more collaborative with the patient to address the non-pharmacological management of pain. There are some things that are the responsibility of the provider and there are some things that are the patients’, families’ and communities’ responsibility, she said, adding that all professionals must look at their interdisciplinary responsibility to the people of the state.

Kentucky Health News is an independent service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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