Last year, a landmark report from former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy officially categorized addiction as a brain disease, citing that nearly 21 million Americans were directly affected by drug and/or alcohol addiction in the past year—approximately the same amount of Americans who suffer from diabetes.
Dr. Murthy’s primary argument advocated for a global, cultural shift in perception: changing the way we view those who struggle with addiction. Instead of regarding addiction as an inherent moral failing, Dr. Murthy urged people to understand the ways in which addiction actually manifests as a chronic illness, and one that must be approached with the “same skill and compassion” as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
The American Society of Addiction Medication reports that drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, driven by the opioid addiction epidemic that has resulted in 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. A 2016 publication revealed statistics that confirmed the direct correlation between overdose rates, sales, and substance use disorders, and prescription pain relievers. As the number of sales of prescription pain relievers has increased, so too has the overdose death rate. Research shows that while the overdose rate in 2008 quadrupled from 1999, so too did the sale of prescription pain pills—in an almost exact parallel. Moreover, the treatment admission rate for substance use disorder in 2009 was six times the 1999 rate. More recent data, according to a report released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicate that the nation’s opioid epidemic continues to worsen and accelerate. Emergency department visits for overdoses rose 30% in all parts of the U.S. from July 2016 through September 2017.
Perhaps even more troubling is the data that points to the shift from prescription opioids to illicit drugs like heroin, due to the high pricing and difficulty in obtaining pills. The most disconcerting aspect of the problem, however, likely lies its complexity: while the abuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids is incontrovertibly resulting in greater rates of addiction and an increase in the number of overdoses, prescription medications are also critically important for many people who suffer from chronic pain. The challenge lies in reconciling the many facets and dimensions of the problem—starting with lessening the stigma of addiction, and alleviating the burden of shame that makes many people with substance use disorders less likely to seek help.
Our Spring Congress keynote presenter Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS will deliver a lecture titled: “Opioids Haven’t Solved Chronic Pain, Maybe Virtual Reality Can?” Spiegel will discuss the application of digital technologies to chronic disease, as more clinicians and companies attempt to curb and mitigate the worsening opioid epidemic through new adherence technologies.