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The Safer Alternatives to Opioids Are Already Here
Opioid addiction claims the life of one American every 19 minutes. A rapidly escalating epidemic, the rise in drug addiction is fueling one of the most pressing health crises of the 21st century, and certainly one of the most complex health problems I’ve seen in my lifetime.
But how do we address the problem? There is much public dialogue and debate surrounding this very question. Solutions are being discussed, changes in policy are being proposed and all the while millions of American lives are hanging in the balance.
In October, the Federal Government stepped in and declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency and followed-up the announcement with a report that includes recommendations on how to fight it. I was encouraged to see that medical technology solutions were included as part of this report. I’m hopeful that these alternatives can start to become a larger piece of the conversation. The report specifically notes that “research and development in new technologies and devices to assist in the opioid crisis are emerging, and their development should be encouraged.”
While this is a good first step by the federal government in making recommendations to address drug addiction and the opioid crisis, the report outlines solutions to a problem that already has some solutions. In other words, there are many innovative medical technologies available that can help play a role in combating this national crisis. These solutions have the potential to reduce our country’s dependence on opioids through medical devices, apps and diagnostic tests that provide effective pain management solutions and help curb the misuse, abuse and overdose of opioids. There are some even more promising technologies on the horizon.
For treatment of pain specifically, spinal cord stimulation uses electrical pulses to block pain signals from reaching the brain while implantable drug pumps deliver pain medication directly to the affected area, reducing the amount of opioids needed to treat pain. Neuroablation uses minimally-invasive surgery to heat up a small area of a nerve or tissue, blocking pain signals traveling to the brain. And cold therapy uses the body’s natural response to cold to treat damaged nerves, helping to treat acute pain so effectively that oftentimes opioids are not prescribed in the first place and the patient never gets the chance to become accidentally addicted.
These are just a few examples. At a recent hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, testified that there are currently more than 200 different medical device alternatives to treat pain.
Medical technology solutions to address this crisis don’t stop there. Drug delivery and medication management devices can monitor distribution of opioids while apps on smartphones and watches can function as behavioral coaches and reminders. Medication disposal technologies collect unused controlled substances and render them non-retrievable and unusable. Diagnostic tools can monitor pain medication use, helping assure the appropriate treatment for patients who can be helped by medications. All of these tools can significantly help to curtail opioid abuse.
Additionally, medical technology companies are developing innovations that are minimally-invasive, enabling patients to return to routine activities in a shorter period of time while experiencing less pain and discomfort after surgery.
Much of the public dialogue on the opioid epidemic continues to focus on narcotic pain medications and their subsequent side effects, including misuse and abuse. My hope is that we can help to shift the conversation and educate physicians, patients, policymakers and others on how these innovative treatment options could play a critical role in reducing the need for opioids, and significantly decrease addiction and related deaths in this country. When you consider that at least 59,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2016, it is imperative that we educate people about the existence of innovative technology solutions and make physicians aware that they can prescribe them as an alternative to opioids.