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Prescription Drug Death Epidemic

According to a CNN report on November 15, accidental death from prescription drug overdoses is the biggest man-made epidemic in the United States. The most common scenario, according to Gary Franklin, medical director for Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries, involves a man in his 40s or 50s who visits a doctor with a backache and walks out with a pain pill prescription. About three years later, typically, the man dies in his sleep from taking too many pills, or mixing them with alcohol. They don’t intend to die, but more than 20,000 times a year—every 19 minutes, on average—that is exactly what happens. Accidental overdoses are now the number one cause of accidental deaths in the United States, surpassing car crashes. The number of pain prescriptions increased 600% between 1997 and 2007 according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We often pay attention if a celebrity dies of an overdose, but really, it’s our friends, neighbors, and family members who are dying. 80% of the world’s pain pills are consumed in the United States, according to 2011 congressional testimony from the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians. No doubt, many are not misused or abused. Yet culturally, we have become increasingly intolerant of even minor amounts of pain and increasingly comfortable with taking heavy-duty medications. However, after just a few months of taking the pills, the effectiveness wears off, and patients typically report getting only about 30% pain relief, compared with when they started. Even more concerning, a subgroup of these patients develop hyperalgesia, an increased sensitivity to pain. Dr. Sanjay Gupta says in this report, “The truth is, it is easier for a doctor to write a prescription than to explore other effective options to combat pain. And it is easier for patients to take those prescription pills than to search for alternatives themselves.” Both those conditions must change in order to reverse this epidemic. The Treatment Research Institute believes the key to combating accidental deaths related to prescription drugs is creating a better dialogue among doctors, patients, and pharmacies. Co-Founder Tom McClellan, who worked as the deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy for the Obama administration, says he believes everyone in the supply chain of prescription drugs needs to take greater responsibility. This means pharmaceutical companies would carefully monitor and control production supply. Doctors would be more rigorous with patient screening. Patients would be more careful about the storing and disposal of their medications along with how they take them. And, most importantly, pharmacies would keep a watchful eye on all of the substances each of their customers takes.