The opioid epidemic is a healthcare crisis, not a social one



Almost six months have passed since President Trump publicly labeled the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis. Media coverage around the epidemic's most affected states and actors increased dramatically as did reports and articles. It's fair to say that most Americans can now understand what this crisis means for the country and its effects on human lives; the yearly death toll now surpassing the Vietnam War. Aside from publicity, what else has changed?

Well, not so much. Funding is yet to effectuate, albeit promises made by the government. The private sector especially hasn't risen to their expectations aside from a few healthcare providers such Aetna, CVS, and Blue Cross Blue Shield who have created campaigns targeted towards curbing some of the affects from a provider standpoint. However, the crisis is still viewed as a social problem, rather than an extremely costly healthcare problem. And the elusive results are largely due to this antediluvian perspective that is still shared amongst many healthcare specialists.

Just last month the government announced that the opioid epidemic's adjusted cost puts it at roughly half a trillion dollars. That's nearly the amount Obama paid to bail out the big banks following the devastating financial crisis that left millions homeless. However, why aren't we seeing the same flood gates open today? Isn't this crisis just as devastating, if not more, than what we witnessed in '08. The answer is two fold. The financial crisis had a clear monetary cost. One that was directly tied to assets and mortgages that were lost. Also, the government stood to benefit from bailing out the banks, since the federal reserve is made up of some of the most prominent commercial banks in the world. It was mutually beneficial. It was a financial problem, which required a financial solution.

Addiction on the other hand isn't, at least that's what they think. For decades addiction has been misunderstood. Treating it as a moral flaw rather than a healthcare issue, in other words a disease, obfuscated its causes and effects, which made it more challenging for care providers to identify and treat patients with empathy and understanding. Before releasing funds or creating wide scale campaigns, we must bridge this gap with empathy. Only then can we see some immediate changes in this healthcare conundrum.

Care providers, policy makers, and regulators can learn a lot from the personal accounts of family members and loved ones of addicts who have seen the devastation first hand. Before embarking on a mission to solve some the effects of this epidemic, I took time off to volunteer at a local rehab center and attended weekly Al-anon meetings to better understand its effects on an addict's immediate circle. It was eye opening to say the least. Even though I could relate directly with substance abuse due to my history growing up around it, listening to firsthand accounts made me more solution driven rather than a passive observer. I encourage anyone who is truly seeking a solution to this epidemic to get out of the confines of home or the office and begin to build relationships with impacted groups.

Finally, physicians will soon be required to treat this disease just as they would cancer or any other terminal illness. We need to see the same type of empathy and understanding when diagnosing patients with addiction. A lot of the time, as we've seen with this epidemic, addiction can begin to surface at a physician's office and not behind dumpster or at a house party. As we've seen, the first line of defense is at these clinics, which means that they will need to be equipped with better tools to help bridge the gap between prescription and addiction.

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