Drug overdose is the leading cause of unintentional death for U.S. adults under age 50, with more than half of these fatalities involving opioids. At more than 40,000 deaths per year, opioid overdoses account for more loss of life than gun violence and motor vehicle accidents combined. On Friday, October 13, Research!America hosted a webinar, “Innovative Research and the Opioid Epidemic: Are We Closer to Finding Solutions?” Speakers discussed how researchers, public health officials and pharmacists serve pivotal roles in combating this ongoing crisis.
Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), explained how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Opioid Research Initiative is pursuing three aims: non-opioid based strategies for management of pain and pain disorders; innovative medications and technologies for opioid addiction treatment; and interventions to reduce the mortality of opioid overdose.
Opiates are incredibly potent pain relievers, she continued. “Through the same mechanisms, they are activating highly rewarding [brain] areas that can lead to and trigger addiction." This presents a unique problem because many people who develop an opioid abuse disorder were first exposed to the drug in a safe, legal, therapeutic setting: a prescription for pain.
In response, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians are expanding their roles as medication safety specialists. Jeffrey Bratberg, PharmD, clinical professor at the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy, discussed how pharmacists are developing prescription monitoring programs and engaging communities in drug safety education outreach.
Georges Benjamin, M.D., executive director of the American Public Health Association and Research!America board member, said emergency departments and incarceration facilities represent opportunities to start opioid abuse patients on medication-assisted therapy (MAT), which reduces opioid cravings and alleviates opioid withdrawal symptoms. If patients admitted to the emergency room for overdoses could be linked to addiction recovery programs, the most at-risk and underserved populations would have increased access to treatment.