Opioid Safety: "America Starts Talking" Helps Patients Talk With Doctors
If you or a loved one is currently taking an opioid for your pain, read on—it could save a life. America Starts Talking is a new campaign to help patients talk with their doctors and families about opioid safety.
An interview with Penney Cowan
Do you feel stigmatized by taking an opioid medication? Are you afraid to tell family members that you have been prescribed an opioid for your chronic pain? Do you know about opioid safety?
With all the news about opioid misuse and abuse, it is sometimes hard for legitimate pain patients to discuss medication safety with their doctor and loved ones, says Penney Cowan, founder and CEO of the American Chronic Pain Association.
Her organization is part of a new campaign, “America Starts Talking,” designed to help patients talk with their healthcare providers, families, and friends about the safe use of opioids.
The America Starts Talking website includes conversation guides and interactive materials about the safe use of prescription opioids, their potential side effects, and how to recognize and respond in an opioid emergency, such as an accidental overdose.
Other partners on the campaign include the pharmaceutical company kaléo, the U.S. Pain Foundation, The Pain Community, and the American Academy of Pain Management. Kaléo is the maker of Evzio (naloxone), a self-injection rescue medication (opioid antidote) in case of accidental overdose.
Misinformation Can Cloud Discussion
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about opioids,” Cowan says. “People taking prescribed opioids for chronic pain are often told by family and friends that they’ll get addicted.” But talking about opioid safety is critical to prevent overdoses, she notes.
According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, 44 people a day in the U.S. die from an overdose of prescription painkillers, and 81% of these are unintentional.
To prevent accidents from happening, the conversation guide recommends patients ask their doctors these 5 questions:
- How does an opioid emergency, such as an accidental overdose, occur?
- What kinds of things should I be doing to make sure I’m taking my opioid safely?
- Can an opioid emergency still occur even if I take my prescription opioid as directed?
- Are there any factors that may increase the chance of an opioid emergency that could cause my breathing to slow down or even stop?
- What are the signs and symptoms of an opioid emergency?
Cowan says patients should also talk with their doctor about providing a family member, friend, or caregiver with naloxone so they can rapidly intervene in the event of an opioid emergency such as an accidental overdose. An injection of naloxone can reverse the effects of opioid overdose, but it remains under prescribed by clinicians.
“Doctors may not have a lot of time during medical appointments, so patients should feel empowered to bring up the issue of opioid safety,” Cowan says. “Patients need to take an active role, and be prepared with questions to ask ahead of time.” A person taking opioids for any length of time—even for a few days after a dental procedure—should ask about opioid safety, she advises.
Talk With Family
“Most overdoses happen at home, so it’s important to talk to your family about opioid safety,” she says. Because people often feel awkward in bringing up the topic, the guide provides an example of how to start off the conversation: “I am currently taking a strong prescription pain medicine known as an ‘opioid.’ It helps relieve my severe pain when other pain treatments are not enough, better allowing me to go about my daily activities.”
Tell family members what opioid medications you are taking and their dosages, she recommends. Also give them your healthcare providers’ names and phone numbers. Tell them about possible side effects associated with taking your medication.
In addition to knowing about how to prevent and deal with opioid overdoses, a person taking opioids needs to know how to safely store and dispose of the drugs to avoid accidental poisoning or misuse by others in the household.
“Opioids are just one part of a pain management regimen,” says Cowan, who founded the American Chronic Pain Association in 1980 after many years of living with chronic pain. “There are many other interventions, such as counseling, acupuncture, physical therapy, relaxation training, and self-management skills, which can help. Pain management is not just about taking a pill, but for people with chronic pain who are helped by opioids, we need to reduce the fear of taking these medications and prepare them in case of an emergency. Starting a conversation about opioid safety can save a life.”
People managing pain with the help of opioids should talk to their healthcare provider about having naloxone in the home, as encouraged by the American Medical Association. Friends, family members, or caregivers can rapidly intervene in the event of an opioid emergency (see box).