More Americans are addicted to prescription pain medications than there are people living in San Diego and Washington, D.C. – combined. Of those nearly two million people, 19,000 of them will die this year from an overdose involving prescription drugs, while American employers will lose more than $10 billion this year due to lost productivity.
We also cannot ignore the fact that pain is cited as the most common reason Americans seek out health care. It is a leading cause of disability and a major contributor to health care costs. Ninety percent of patients with advanced cancer experience severe pain, and pain occurs in 30 percent of all patients with cancer, regardless of the stage of their disease.
What we need is a balanced approach that ensures appropriate treatment of pain while also providing the tools needed by all of us to collectively reduce abuse, overdose and overdose deaths. This approach starts with a comprehensive set of policies that address the problem from top to bottom.
First and foremost, we need to educate patients about appropriate use, including not sharing medications, and secure storage and safe disposal of unused and unwanted medicines. MyOldMeds, an educational platform created by PhRMA, is designed to drive public awareness about the importance of safe use, storage and disposal of medicines, as well as information about avoiding the misuse and abuse of prescription medicines. Recognizing the need to expand the reach of this effort, we recently launched a more comprehensive educational effort in Massachusetts with plans to expand to other states and locales across the country.
These policies also need to focus on prescribers, who we strongly believe should have mandatory prescriber education and training on effective pain management, including when it is appropriate or not to prescribe an opioid, a non-opioid alternative or another form of treatment.
Second, we need to develop evidence-based clinical guidelines to inform appropriate treatment regimens for acute and chronic pain. These recommendations should help set when and under what circumstances an opioid is appropriate – and when one isn’t – the dosage, duration, discontinuation and required follow-up of the patient’s treatment.
Third, the U.S. needs to recognize that some patients may need not just long-term care for their pain but also long-term support, including expanded coverage and access to in- and out-patient treatment options as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for treating abuse and addiction. This includes expanded access to medications to treat addiction, and expanding access to overdose reversal agents to assist overdose victims (e.g., naloxone).
Finally, PhRMA members will continue to lead in developing new abuse-deterrent formulations of opioid medications and non-opioid pain medications as well as medications to treat addiction and prevent drug overdose and death—but we need to ensure that coverage and access policies support their use.
These and other policies – such as the mandated use of prescription drug monitoring programs to prevent doctor shopping and enhancement of law enforcement efforts to shut down rogue online pharmacies and pill mills – are crucial to efforts to combat the threat of abuse and misuse of drugs.
Stopping an epidemic of this scale and complexity demands comprehensive, broad and deep collaboration from the biopharmaceutical industry as well as the federal government, state and local officials, physicians, law enforcement, educators, parents, coaches and others.
None of this will be easy. Our progress will be measured through action, not intention. But 44 people will die today because of a prescription drug overdose, and the U.S. can help stop these senseless deaths and the spread of opioid abuse if we all pull together and get to the real, hard work it demands. The members of PhRMA remain firmly committed to it.
Stephen Ubl is president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).