Tag Archives: jama

Wellness Programs Lack Health Literacy

The more informed your employees are about health and healthcare, the wiser and more confident they’ll be when it comes to making the right lifestyle and healthcare choices.

Health Literacy

Health literacy improves health outcomes, while controlling health spending. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) defines it as:

“the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

What does the IOM mean by “basic health information”? It’s the knowledge necessary to understand the impacts and risks of different health-related decisions or behaviors. For example, basic health information would include knowing why you should complete the full dosage of antibiotics prescribed by a doctor.

However, an even more informed healthcare consumer would know, or at least ask, whether antibiotics are even necessary for the ailment in question.

The Low Health Literacy Rate

Health literacy is very low in the U.S. – “proficiency” is pegged at 12% by the Journal of the American Medical Association, well below the level of other nations where citizens have access to technology.

According to JAMA, having a “proficient” level of health literacy can mean making consistently good healthcare choices and understanding one’s insurance options. Yet, mere proficiency should not be the goal. At Quizzify, where employees are already “proficient,” we continue to learn something every day. For instance, today we learned that pregnant women should avoid consuming black licorice because it contains a chemical that can harm unborn babies. (In this situation, it’s the high-quality candy-store licorice that is the culprit. The version you buy at newsstands is only licorice-flavored.)

See also: New Wellness Plans: for Employee Finances  

Low Health Literacy Affects Cost

A study conducted by the Veterans Administration (VA) on the literacy-cost correlation revealed that veterans with low health literacy spend roughly 50% more on disease management and medical care than veterans with proficient knowledge, other things equal. Think about what that means for your own healthcare budget, and how much you would save by making even a small dent in that.

Low Health-Literacy Affects Employee Wellness Outcomes

Health literacy training has far better outcomes than any other employee wellness program. Screenings, for example, do not prevent the utilization of medical care. In fact, they may actually encourage it.

In the Health Enhancement Research Organization Outcomes Guidebook, researchers found that only 7-8% of hospitalizations are “potentially preventable” by wellness programs. They also note that many non-hospital expenses increase as a result of these programs. Meanwhile health literacy applies to the vast majority of decisions and behaviors that affect health.

In contrast, health literacy applies to the vast majority of decisions and behaviors that affect health. Typically, literate consumers spend less. When literate consumers spend more, it is usually an educated decision and may avoid a bad outcome.

Implementing Health Literacy Into the Workplace

The Uphill Battle Toward Behavior Change:

People who are smokers or overweight already realize they should make changes…and yet, for many complex and (in the case of obesity) poorly understood biochemical reasons, can’t. Encouraging smokers to quit or obese employees to lose weight is a totally uphill, probably unwinnable task for an employer, even as a lot of money gets spent trying to move the needle. It is nearly impossible to make significant dents in these two (and related) health issues through behavior change. Furthermore, employers are not especially well-positioned to bring about these changes. Trying too hard can even feel intrusive and uncomfortable for employees.

Knowledge as a Solution:

By contrast, in health literacy, most of the effort is in imparting the knowledge, not changing the behavior.

Examples:

  • Every smoker knows he or she is supposed to quit already for health reasons but doesn’t. However, a few smokers may be motivated to quit when they learn the amount of money they are really spending on cigarettes. ($300,000-plus over a lifetime.)
  • People know that radiation is unhealthy, whereas very few patients receiving CT scans realize they will be absorbing as much as 1000 times the radiation of an X-ray. Simply obtaining the knowledge can change behavior while saving money.

See also: Ethics of Workplace Wellness Industry  

Achieving a higher level of health literacy is not difficult– it just takes some learning.

EpiPen and the Prescription Crisis

The American prescription crisis is no longer coming. It’s here. And we need to focus on how to address it.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August, for each person in the U.S., $858 is spent annually on prescription drugs, compared with an average of $400 per person across 19 other industrialized nations. Prescription medications now compose an estimated 17% of overall healthcare expenses.

How did we get here and who is to blame: the manufacturer of the drugs or the American drug distribution channel? Both parties are pointing their fingers at one another, with the flames being fanned by the media and government. Who should the consumer believe?

Unless you are living in a cave, you have heard or read about the EpiPen pricing scandal. The manufacturers’ CEO, Heather Bresch, claims that more than half of the new $608 list price is absorbed by the distribution channel. She says the huge price increases are not her company’s fault and attempts to justify the increased price. Is she right, or is she trying to pin the blame elsewhere for her pricing decisions?

See also: EpiPen Pricing: It’s the System, Stupid  

Drug manufacturers, in general, complain that their net incomes continue to remain flat or even decline. They show their financials as evidence and complain about the ratio of the list price of their drugs vs. the realized price, a figure known as “gross-to-net.” When rebates paid by the manufacturer outpace the price increases by the same manufacturer, it is easy to understand why the figure remains flat or even declines.

The pharmacy benefits manager (PBM) serves as the largest component of the manufacturers’ distribution channel, charging a margin/fee as well as collecting a rebate for their services. Somehow, they have redefined the laws of nature by figuring out how to consistently convince their clients that they are saving money, while showing Wall Street steady revenue growth.

The crisis is here, and as an employer you should be up at night wondering how this crisis of prescription costs affects you. The numbers don’t add up, and you are paying for the deficit.

Important Alliance to Fight Health Costs

The Wall Street Journal reported that 20 large U.S. companies joined to fight high healthcare costs, launching the aptly named Health Transformation Alliance. Employers account for one in five dollars spent on healthcare in the U.S., yet they have relatively weak influence in the marketplace. But these influential companies are intent on aggressive action. With this kind of unified leadership, the alliance promises to shake the foundations of our health care economy.

There have been other efforts to harness the power of the business community to improve health care. My organization, the Leapfrog Group, is one such effort, founded by Business Roundtable in 2000 to address quality and patient safety in hospitals. Based on what we’ve learned over the past 16 years, here are three key principles for the alliance to start with:

  1. Lowering costs won’t automatically lower prices.

Whenever the subject of cost reduction comes up, some providers tout the enormous cost savings they have put in place through improved efficiencies, better technology or less invasive procedures. Recently, they have also pointed to the potential of large hospital system mergers to reduce costs through economies of scale. But employers are right to wonder why their own healthcare price tag continues to rise, despite these marvelous advances. Why don’t they see the cost savings?

Simply put, cost savings to the provider are not the same as cost savings to the purchaser. This sounds like such an obvious point. But the obfuscation over whose costs are saved persists and trips up progress year after year, with purchasers left scratching their heads. The alliance members will succeed in cutting their own prices only if they clearly demand that cost-reduction strategies have visible and substantial effects on their own bottom lines.

  1. Lowering prices won’t automatically lower costs.

Even if purchasers do succeed in lowering prices, the cost-reduction job is not done. That’s because the amount of waste in healthcare is profound. The Institute of Medicine estimates that as much as one-third of all costs are associated with unnecessary services, errors, infections and management inefficiencies. Not all providers are the same, and some incur much more waste than others. Whatever the price of a particular procedure, it’s no bargain when there are infections, complications and mismanagement—or if the procedure wasn’t medically necessary in the first place.

This is not chump change, this is game change. A 2013 study in the Journal of the American Medical Associaton (JAMA) reported that, on average, purchasers paid $39,000 extra when a patient contracted a surgical site infection. That excess doesn’t show up on the claim as a line item called “waste.” It is buried in a series of excess fees, tests, treatments and time spent in the hospital. Employers intent on cutting costs must factor wastefulness into the pricing equation.

  1.  Focus on the market incentives.

Our system of costs and pricing creates perverse incentives. The more a provider wastes, the more it can bill the employers. New financing models are slowly emerging, aimed at achieving value—the novel idea that payments align with patient outcomes. One of the most promising models is called “bundled pricing,” in which a health system is paid one total price for a particular procedure, including physician fees, radiology, hospital charges, etc. In this model, a provider is given incentives to actually reduce waste, so it maximizes profit under the bundle.

Some large employers have developed bundled pricing arrangements with a select group of health systems, for a select group of procedures. Walmart is a leader in this, as are employer members of the Pacific Business Group on Health. What have they found? A significant reduction in waste and better care for employees.

Another promising use of bundled pricing is coming from international medical tourism. Health services and pharmaceuticals are often much less expensive overseas than in the U.S. Most international providers offer bundled pricing and concierge hosting services. For example, Health City Cayman Islands offers bundled prices for certain heart and orthopedic surgeries, including all facility and physician fees, along with pre- and post-operative care at a lovely beachfront hotel. Its prices are one-fourth to one-fifth those for comparable services in the U.S.

The problem with medical tourism: determining the quality of international providers. Employer groups, like the Health Transformation Alliance, must address this in their work. Once again, waste and quality need to be factored into the cost equation.

To Be or Not to Be (Vaccinated)?

For many years, Americans did not need to worry about contracting the once-widespread disease called the measles. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially declared measles eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. In January 2015 alone, there were already more confirmed cases in the U.S. than are typically diagnosed in a full year. Public health officials are very concerned and have moved to aggressively contain this very contagious, but 100% preventable, disease. The current outbreak and surge in confirmed cases of measles, most notably in California, has been scientifically linked by researchers from MIT and Boston’s Children Hospital to the outbreak that began in Disneyland in December 2014. Medical researchers believe the spread of the current measles outbreak is solely because of low vaccination rates in certain communities based on a widespread but false link between childhood immunizations and autism. International health officials have called the link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism “the most damaging public health hoax in the past 100 years.”

Just last week on April 21, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released the findings of a comprehensive study using the health insurance data base of 95,000 children and found no overall link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The study also found no link for children with an autistic sibling. The study did find a lower vaccination rate for the younger siblings of children with autism based on parents’ continued fears of a link. The JAMA study authors from the Lewin Group in Falls Church, Va., stated; “Consistent with studies in other populations, we observed no association between MMR vaccine and increased ASD (autism spectrum disorder) risk among privately insured children.”

Despite the overwhelming medical evidence that the MMR vaccine is both very safe and highly effective, anti-vaccination groups still dispute the facts and are warning parents not to be pressured into having their children vaccinated, which is the crux of this public health problem. On the same day that the JAMA study was released, CBS Evening News ran a segment on the current U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, or “America’s Doctor,” who appeared on Sesame Street to promote childhood vaccinations. CBS closed the segment with; “Vaccination critics don’t see anything cute about this video after the controversy over the recent measles outbreak.” Really? There is no controversy. It was all based on a documented hoax.

The original belief that vaccinations cause autism was based on a reported study in 1988 by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in the U.K., which has since been 100% completely discredited. His report unnecessarily panicked many parents around the world, causing a sharp decline in the number of children getting the MMR vaccine. The false claims and widespread panic began when a British medical journal, the Lancet, published Wakefield’s article. It was later determined that the author had multiple conflicts of interest, had manipulated evidence and had broken ethical research codes of conduct, including accepting funding by attorneys involved in lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. The Lancet fully retracted the article, but not until 2010, when the editor-in-chief stated that the link was “totally false” and that the world-famous medical journal was “deceived.” The Canadian Medical Journal in 2010 went on to state that the original research included a “callous disregard” for the “carefully selected” study group of only 12 children and that “several elements of this research were incorrect and contrary to findings of an earlier investigation.” Dr. Wakefield subsequently lost his license to practice medicine in the U.K as a result of this fraudulent research.

These are the facts that parents need to know about the measles. Symptoms typically begin with a high fever, runny nose, sore throat and cough, which can easily be misdiagnosed as a simple cold or the flu. The incubation period is between seven and 18 days of exposure to the virus. It is very dangerous because people are contagious up to four days before the red rash appears and likely do not know they are infected. In addition, a room can still be contaminated as long as two hours after an infected person leaves. A single infected person can spread the disease to between 11 and 18 people. An unvaccinated person has a 90% chance of infection if exposed to the virus. The risk of serious complications and death is even greater for adults and infants than for children and teenagers. Rubella, known as the German measles, is also caused by the virus and is usually a mild form of the disease but is a very serious infection that causes miscarriages, still births or birth defects in unborn children when pregnant women get the disease.

Most people born prior to 1957 had the measles. The disease was once so prevalent that in New York City, in the first 10 weeks of 1933 alone, there were 10,000 cases and 434 deaths. The first vaccines developed began in 1958 and became widely available in 1963. Prior to 1963, there were three to four million cases of measles reported each year in the U.S., with 400 to 500 reported deaths annually.

Although many parents in the anti-vaccination movement believe the measles is not dangerous and the MMR vaccine is, the medical facts state otherwise. In fact, from 2001 to 2013, 28% of children in the U.S. with the measles had to be hospitalized. Public health officials fear that many more cases will develop from this outbreak of a very preventable disease, unless aggressive public health measures are undertaken. What is required is an extensive education campaign including widespread vaccination of the unvaccinated U.S. population, starting with infants at 12 months and a booster shot at age four to six, prior to pre-school or kindergarten. Unvaccinated adults also need to be vaccinated.

There are a number of myths associated with the measles vaccination that keep some parents from protecting their children. The controversy surrounding the anti-vaccination movement is based largely on parents’ philosophical beliefs against the vaccination. Dr. James Cherry, a pediatric infectious disease expert at UCLA, believes that the recent outbreak in California is “100% connected to the anti-immunization campaign.” He went on the say that there are “some pretty dumb people out there.”

Medical researchers from MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital documented that the rapid spread of measles from the Disneyland outbreak, beginning in mid-December 2014, indicated a significant percentage of the population exposed had low vaccination rates. These researchers determined that the exposed population rate might have been as low as 50% and likely no higher than 86%. These rates are well below the 96%-99% level known as “herd immunity,” which is required to prevent future outbreaks.

The anti-vaccination movement includes those parents who believe that there is no medical risk from not vaccinating their child, that the disease is extinct, that doctors and drug companies push vaccinations for their own profit, and that you can get the measles from the vaccination. Still others believe the false and discredited link to autism. For the parents who are against vaccination, they not only put their own children at risk, they dramatically increase the risk for the general population who are unable to get the vaccination, such as infants under the age of one, and children and adults with weak immune systems, including people with cancer and other diseases.

Measles is still widespread throughout the world. Travelers from overseas continue to bring the disease into the U.S on a daily basis. The anti-vaccination conspiracy movement belief that doctors and insurance companies promote the vaccination to increase profit is absurd and is negated by the fact that health insurance companies pay for the vaccinations at no cost to the patient. Similar to the flu shot that is a dead virus from which someone cannot get the flu, it is almost impossible to get the measles from the MMR vaccine.

The CDC states there is a 1 in 3,000 chance of a mild allergic reaction to the MMR vaccine but a 90% chance of infection if an unvaccinated child is exposed to the virus. Parents should do the math. In addition, a blood product containing an immune globulin is available for people who are medically unable to immunize with the MMR vaccine for any reason.

What parents need to know is that the scientific community has found no evidence whatsoever of a link between MMR vaccine and autism or any other childhood development disorder. In addition to the just-released JAMA study, large epidemiological studies conducted by the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the U.K. National Health Services all found no link between MMR and autism. This original false research has done significant damage to the field of public health and has done serious harm to children of parents who were misled by this report, which resulted in unnecessary deaths, severe impairment and permanent injury in unvaccinated children. Because of wide dissemination of this discredited link, there were many lawsuits by parents with children with autism, but a special court convened by the National Vaccination Injury Compensation program denied all compensation claims in U.S. federal court against manufacturers of the vaccine in 2009.

The recent measles outbreak in California is what has spiked the “controversy” over vaccinations, which has made the national news in 2015 including; CNN, the New York Times and Time Magazine. There have been 178 documented new cases of the measles by late March by the CDC, including five unvaccinated Disneyland workers in Orange County, and the outbreak is now spreading across the U.S.

Although traditional public health issues are typically rooted in poor or rural areas of the country, this current measles outbreak is concentrated in wealthy neighborhoods in California and surrounding states. Although it is reported that only 3.1% of parents in California refuse to vaccinate their children, for health or religious reasons, this number is misleading. In fact, many areas within California have double-digit exemption rates from vaccinations, with some areas as high as 50%.

The MMR vaccination is the best way to prevent disease both for the individual and the general population. It works by making the body produce anti-bodies against the virus. The measles vaccination is recommended for all people 12 months of age or older, and especially people traveling overseas. MMR vaccinations are supported by the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mayo Clinic, to name just a few.

An extensive education campaign is required to overcome false and unfounded fears among parents of unvaccinated children. Legislation is needed to strengthen immunization laws requiring all school-age children to receive the measles vaccination, except for those with a medical exemption certified by a licensed physician. Public health officials should also track and verify both statewide and local immunization rates and should mandate that schools maintain an up-to-date list of pupils with exemptions so they can be excluded quickly if an outbreak occurs, temporarily exclude unvaccinated students and teachers from attending school and offer measles vaccinations for unvaccinated students and teachers.

The MMR vaccine is 99% effective and provides immunity for a lifetime. It was once considered one of the major public health campaign success stories. Now, health officials fear the potential for a public health crisis based on blatantly false research and unfounded fears. The CDC points out that people who refuse to vaccinate usually live in the same community. “When measles find its way into these communities, outbreaks are more likely to occur.” Consumers and parents should confirm with their doctor that they or their children do not have any allergic reactions to other medications. They should also verify that they do not have an immune deficiency condition, which may cause side effects and decrease the vaccine’s usefulness.

The myth that childhood vaccinations lead to autism was based largely on a completely discredited medical research hoax. This myth is still being widely perpetuated today not only by the anti-vaccination conspiracy movement led by Hollywood celebrities but also by the mainstream media.

My heart breaks for the parents of children with autism, including a close family friend. But it breaks my heart even more knowing that thousands of children are unnecessarily exposed to unimaginable consequences of birth defects and death from something so preventable. Parents need to listen to the Surgeon General, the CDC, the Mayo Clinic and the American Academy of Pediatrics and not Hollywood celebrities with zero background in public health.

I would like to thank my research assistant and co-author Ms. Chandler Berke who is a public health/science undergraduate student at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

When Is It Right to Prescribe Opioids?

Opioids have been used for thousands of years in the treatment of pain and mental illness. Essentially everyone believes that opioids are powerful pain relievers. However, recent studies have shown that taking acetaminophen and ibuprofen together is actually more effective in treating pain. Because of this, it is helpful for medical professionals and patients to understand the history of these opioid medications and the potential benefits of using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) instead.

Extracted from the seedpod of the poppy plant, opium was the first opioid compound used for medicinal purposes. The active ingredients of opium are primarily morphine, codeine and thebaine. Opium and its derivatives have had more impact on human society than any other medication. Wars have been fought and countless lives have been lost to the misuse, abuse and overdose of opioids. It is also clear, however, that many received comfort from pain when there was no other alternative. For thousands of years, opium products provided the only effective treatment of pain and were also used to treat anxiety and depression. Tolerance, dependence and addiction were identified early as a problem with opioids.

In 1899, Bayer produced and introduced aspirin for wide distribution. It became the first significant alternative to opioids for treating pain. Aspirin not only relieves pain but also reduces inflammation and is in the class of NSAID medications. Aspirin was commonly used for mild pain such as headache and backache. Other NSAID medications followed with the development of ibuprofen in 1961, indomethacin in 1963 and many others over the next 20 years. While these drugs are not addictive or habit-forming, their use and effectiveness were limited by side effects and toxicity. All NSAID medications share some of the same side effects of aspirin, primarily the risk of gastrointestinal irritation and ulcer. These medications can also harm renal function.

Acetaminophen was created in 1951 but not widely distributed until 1955 under the trade name Tylenol. Acetaminophen is neither an opioid nor an NSAID. Tylenol soon became another medication that was useful in the treatment of pain, offering an alternative to the opioid medications and to aspirin. Acetaminophen avoids many of the side effects of opioids and NSAIDs b­ut carries its own risk with liver toxicity.

Efficacy in acute pain

Since the development of acetaminophen, medical professionals have had the choice of three different classes of medications when treating pain. Those decisions are usually made by considering the perceived effectiveness of each medicine and its side effects along with the physical status of the patient. For example, acetaminophen should not be taken by someone with advanced liver damage; NSAIDs should not be given to an individual with advanced kidney disease or stomach ulcers; and opioids pose a potential risk to anyone with a personal or family history of addiction.

Although many have long been believed that opioids are the strongest pain medications and should be used for more severe pain, scientific literature does not support that belief. There are many other treatments that should be utilized for treating pain. Studies have shown NSAIDs are just as strong as the opioids.

Number needed to treat

When considering the effectiveness or the strength of pain medications, it is important to understand one of the statistical measures used in clinical studies: the number needed to treat (NNT). NNT is the number of people who must be treated by a specific intervention for one person to receive a certain effect. For example, when testing pain medications, the intervention is the dose of pain medication, and the effect is usually 50% pain relief. That is considered effective treatment, allowing people increased functional abilities and an improved quality of life (Cochrane. org, 2014). So the question becomes, how many people must be treated with a certain dose of a medication for one person to receive 50% pain relief (effective relief)?

A lower NNT means the medicine is more effective. A product with an NNT of 1 means that the medicine is 100% effective at reducing pain by 50% — everyone who takes the medicine has effective pain relief. A medicine with an NNT of 2 means two people must be treated for one to receive effective relief. Or, alternatively, one out of two, or 50%, of people who take the medicine get effective pain relief. An example of a medicine that would not be a good pain reliever would be one with a NNT equal to 10. In such a case, you would have to treat 10 people for one to receive effective pain relief. Basically, the medication with the lowest NNT will be the most effective. For oral pain medications, an NNT of 1.5 is very good, and an NNT of 2.5 would be considered good.

Treating chronic pain

Despite the widespread use of opioid medications to treat chronic pain, there is no significant evidence to support this practice. A recent article reviewing the evidence regarding the use of opioids to treat chronic non-cancer pain concluded, “There is no high-quality evidence on the efficacy of long-term opioid treatment of chronic nonmalignant pain.” (Kissin, 2013, p. 519) A recent Cochrane review comparing opioids with placebo in the treatment of low back pain came to a similar conclusion. This review said that there may be some benefit over placebo when used for short-term treatment, but no evidence shows that opioids are helpful when used for longer than four months. There is no evidence of benefit over non-opioid medications when used for less than four months. (Chaparro et al., 2014)

Several other reviews have also concluded that no evidence exists to support long-term use – longer than four months – of opioids to treat chronic pain. (Kissin, 2013; Martell et al., 2007; McNicol, Midbari, & Eisenberg, 2013; Noble et al., 2010)

Epidemiologic studies have also failed to confirm the efficacy of chronic opioid therapy (COT) for chronic non-cancer pain. A large study from Denmark showed that those with chronic pain who were on COT had higher levels of pain, had poorer quality of life and were less functional than those with chronic pain who were not on COT. (Eriksen, Sj.gren, Bruera, Ekholm, & Rasmussen, 2006)

In the last 20 years in the U.S., we have increased our consumption of opioids by more than 600%. (Paulozzi & Baldwin, 2012) Despite this increase, we have not decreased our suffering from pain. The Burden of Disease study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that Americans suffered as much disability from back and neck pain in 2010 as they did in 1990 before the escalation in the prescribing of opioids. (Murray, 2013) A study in JAMA in 2008 found, “Despite rapidly increasing medical expenditures from 1997 to 2005, there was no improvement over this period in self-assessed health status, functional disability, work limitations or social functioning among respondents with spine problems.” (Martin et al., 2008, p. 661)

It is currently estimated that more than 9 million Americans use COT for the treatment of chronic nonmalignant pain (Boudreau et al., 2009). When we consider the proven benefits of this treatment along with the known risks, we must ask ourselves how we can ethically continue this treatment.

The reality is we really don’t know if COT is effective. Anecdotal evidence and expert opinion suggest it may be beneficial in a few, select people. However, epidemiologic studies suggest that it may be doing more harm than good.

Terminal care

The treatment of incurable cancer, end-stage lung disease and other end-of-life situations are notable examples where opioid medications are absolutely indicated. Although opioid painkillers are not very good medications for the treatment of pain, they are very strong psychotherapeutic agents. They are excellent at relieving anxiety and treating depression for a limited time. Opioids cause beneficial changes to brain serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine and endorphins. For short-term, end-of-life situations, these neuropsychiatric effects are likely beneficial. For terminal care, opioids are the medications of choice.

Conclusion

The opioid medications are often referred to as “powerful painkillers.” In fact, the evidence shows that they are mild to moderate painkillers and less effective than over-the-counter ibuprofen. They have, however, powerful side effects that harm hundreds of thousands of individuals every year in the U.S. Even if one disregards the public health problems created by the use of opioid painkillers, these medications still are not a good choice for the treatment of acute pain — regardless of the severity. In some situations, limited use is appropriate. But in the majority of situations in which opioid painkillers are used today, they are not appropriate.

The standard of care in the practice of medicine today is to provide the best treatment that causes the least harm. When there is a treatment that is proven to be both more effective and safer, it is the treatment of choice. The implication of this data for policymakers is critical. By implementing policy that puts restrictions on opioid prescribing to protect public health, policymakers will also improve the treatment of pain by guiding prescribers to use medications that are more effective. It is also important for the medical and dental communities to address this inadequate and unsafe treatment of pain and change practice standards to guide care that is more appropriate for what our patients need and deserve.

This is an excerpt from a paper that can be downloaded in its entirety from the National Safety Council.