In many cases, when a patient comes into the emergency room with acute, severe pain, a doctor’s first instinct is to reach for an opioid pain reliever. Powerful and fast acting, they are widely regarded as an instant pain management win.
Unfortunately, they are also highly addictive. And, as the number of people killed by prescription painkiller overdoses every year inches closer to 20,000, doctors are finally asking whether opioids should be seen as the first response to patient pain, or the last.
St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in New York has begun working with its 79 doctors and 150 nurses to start using alternative pain management methods for their patients in all but the most extreme cases. Utilizing everything from non-narcotic injections and nerve blocks to holistic-style healing and even a harpist, St. Joseph’s has completely re-prioritized its pain management protocols.
Needless to say, in an ER were 75% of its 170,000 cases each year are pain-related, this is no small undertaking.
Opioid addiction is one of the first steps in a lethal vicious circle that has only been tightening its grip on the country. As doctors prescribe opioids to patients for their after-visit care, a growing number of those patients have become addicted to the medications.
Once addicted, the patient faces a grueling and dangerous withdrawal. And, in some cases, rather than enduring that pain, the patient turns to a drug that is – in most cases – cheaper and easier to obtain than a prescription narcotic: heroin. Heroin overdoses, and subsequent deaths, have spiked as a result.
This shift away from opioid narcotics then, is welcome news for those who have already fallen into painkiller and heroin addiction. The New York Times profiled one recovering heroin addict, a former emergency medical technician, who was almost certain that he would be treated, once again, with an opioid when he arrived at St. Joseph’s emergency room with severe kidney stone pain.
“I didn’t have that euphoric feeling or the heaviness in my chest,” he says. “I was so glad they had an alternative.”
St. Joseph’s has decreased opioid use in its emergency room by 38 percent so far this year. Hospitals across the country are closely watching the results as they explore ways to continue caring for their patients while also doing their part to combat an epidemic that, one could easily argue, largely started from within their own walls.