Patrice Harris: Fact-based response to opioid crisis needed (Opinion)

As a medical student at West Virginia University — in Morgantown and Charleston — I learned to follow the evidence. As students of science, we were expected to check our biases at the door and pay attention to what worked for our patients.

The same approach should animate our public discussion of health care. Yet, the op-ed published in the Gazette-Mail by Delegate Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, contained many errors about the opioid epidemic. The public would be ill-served to think these claims have a basis in science.

Most dangerous was to question the efficacy of medication used to treat patients with an opioid use disorder. Combining medical care with counseling and other services can help patients with substance use disorder lead satisfying and productive lives that reduces risk of overdose, transmission of infectious disease and crime. It also increases recovery and — most importantly — saves lives.

The column criticized a state official for calling this treatment the “gold standard.” Yet, those are the exact words used by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, a leader in the fight against the epidemic.

Patients in recovery due to this treatment face stigma — perpetuated by the thinking in the column — when people contend that “one drug is replacing another.” We don’t fault diabetes patients for taking insulin or blood pressure medicine daily, so why would we deny patients with a substance use disorder the medication they need? Adding stigma only adds another barrier to their treatment.

And just as we don’t expect all hypertension or diabetes patients to manage their diseases without medication, the same is true for patients with opioid use disorder. We don’t recommend a one-size-fits all approach. We listen to the patient and work with them to develop an effective treatment plan. Medications that have been proven effective in treating opioid use disorder should be an accessible and affordable option.

Opioid use disorder is a brain disease. And like many diseases, we know what works. The American Medical Association is working to get people trained. Last year, more than a half-million physicians and other health care providers took courses on opioids. Physicians are reducing the prescription opioid supply, but our policies must also focus on prevention and treatment. About 90 percent of those needing addiction treatment are unable to access it. Insurance providers must remove barriers to treatment.

The need is great. We don’t have time to chase unproven solutions. We know how to compassionately, effectively treat our patients. Let’s dedicate our efforts there.

Patrice A. Harris, M.D.,

a Bluefield native, is president

of the American Medical Association

and chairwoman of the AMA’s

Opioid Task Force.


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