Painkillers that kill


Kent Hospital is to be commended for throwing the spotlight on the alarming growth in fatalities attributable to prescription drug and narcotic overdoses. Five of seven overdose patients who suffered cardiac arrest and were admitted to the hospital in the last eight weeks died. The rate of overdose cases has doubled since last year with 75 in the last six months.

At a press conference Monday, specialists in the medical and law enforcement fields spoke about what Rhode Island Department of Health Director Dr. Michael Fine calls a “public health emergency.”

Now there needs to be a second installment that answers the question: how do we fix it?

Craig Stenning, director of Rhode Island’s Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, said that society today believes we should feel no pain. This notion, combined with the heavy marketing of prescription narcotics, has lead to the over-prescription of painkillers.

Michael Dacey, Kent’s chief medical examiner, said prescriptions of morphine equivalents have grown from 95 milligrams per person per year in 1995 to 750 milligrams per person in 2009.

There has to be something done to stop doctors from over-prescribing to their patients. Leftover narcotics that hang around medicine cabinets can fall into the wrong hands. Whether it be a curious child that experiments with the drug, or a friend who knows the street value, excess drugs lead to problems and as the data shows, fatalities.

Experts aren’t sure what accounts for the spike in drug overdose deaths, but they can’t rule out increased access to prescription meds as a reason.

But it’s not just prescription drugs that are causing fatalities.

Law enforcement personnel see people transition from prescription drugs to street drugs like heroin.

Although abusing prescription drugs is no safer than abusing street drugs, officials warn that these substances are not controlled. Oxycontin has always been potent, but heroin is growing in potency, for example. Because heroin is often cheaper than prescription pills, it’s a natural segue for users to eventually make.

Fine said, over the summer the Department of Health hopes to introduce an electronic system that will more efficiently monitor the sale and prescription of narcotics in the state. By knowing where they are and how they’re being prescribed, HEALTH hopes to get a better handle on their abuse.

The state is also hosting a no-questions-asked prescription drug take back day on April 28.

But while an electronic database and a take back day are a part of the solution, education and a changed perception about prescription drugs is what we really need. We can’t continue to nourish the idea that these drugs, handed to us by someone in a white lab coat, are any safer than something exchanged for cash in a dark alley.

We can all use a strong dose of education on this topic. And the story needs to be told and retold if such tragedy is to be averted.


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