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Helping to Curb the Opioid Epidemic

June 29, 2017

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Of all the alarming statistics about our nation's opioid epidemic, consider this: The amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled since 1999.

America is getting older, and millions of people have learned oxycodone, hydrocodone, tramadol and other opioids can help ease their chronic pain – at least in the short term.

The painkillers also are very addictive, claiming more than 40 U.S. lives each day. Millions of people nonetheless insist on the prescriptions from their physicians. 

"When you're sitting at a patient's bedside and they're saying, 'Please help me. I hurt,' you want to help them," explained Melanie Simpson, PhD, RN, who coordinates The University of Kansas Health System's Pain Management team.

She is part of a group of about 15 physicians and other experts at the health system, the University of Kansas Medical Center and other partners in Kansas striving to help primary care physicians around the state turn the tide on patients' opioid abuse.

Through organizations like Kansas Partnership for Pain Management and the Kansas Foundation for Medical Care, they're speaking about opioids at medical conferences in Wichita, Hays, Topeka and smaller towns.

They're also connecting twice a month with primary care physicians in more rural communities through hour-long teleconference sessions hosted by the medical center's Project ECHO.

They discuss guidelines for prescribing opioids, how to recognize abuse and how to respond to patients' demands for more. They also review alternatives such as behavioral therapy, the importance of exercise and diet, massage, acupuncture and injections and surgeries that block certain nerves.

"A lot of our initiative is on educating providers to not prescribe these medications when it's not strongly indicated," said anesthesiologist Smith Manion, MD.

Anesthesiology Chair Talal Khan, MD, another member of the group, notes the opioid crisis is the "tip of the iceberg" of the nation's chronic pain epidemic affecting 100 million Americans.

"You can manage chronic pain through different modalities," he said. "You can try to put a lid on it for extended periods of time. But curing it is very hard."

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