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Surgeon General Pens Open Letter on Opioid Crisis

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is sending a letter to physicians around the U.S. asking for help in addressing the opioid crisis, the first time his office has done so for a public health crisis.

The letter will be sent to 2.3 million health care providers this week, and acknowledges that providers have played a role in the increase of available opioids by prescribing more of the addictive drugs with “good intentions.” Providers were encouraged to treat patients’ pain with opioids, but not educated properly on how to do so safely, and were on the receiving end of heavy marketing campaigns for opioids, he says.

“Many of us were even taught – incorrectly – that opioids are not addictive when prescribed for legitimate pain,” he writes. “The results have been devastating.”

Attention to the opioid crisis has grown significantly in the past year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in March that opioids should not be the default treatment option for chronic pain, and lawmakers passed the first major legislative package addressing the crisis this summer. Several lawmakers up for re-election are campaigning on the issue, particularly in states that have seen major increases in opioid abuse such as Ohio and New Hampshire.

Murthy’s letter asks physicians to join a “national movement of clinicians” aimed at reversing the crisis. The physicians will educate themselves how to more safely and effectively treat pain, screen patients for opioid use disorder and connect them to evidence-based treatment and change the conversation around addiction so that it is discussed as a chronic illness, he says.

“I know solving this problem will not be easy,” the letter says. “We often struggle to balance reducing our patients’ pain with increasing their risk of opioid addiction. But, as clinicians, we have the unique power to help end this epidemic.”