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Nurses’ Role in the Opioid Epidemic

In recent years, public health emergencies have been declared as a result of hurricanes, typhoons, tropical storms, earthquakes, wildfires and infectious disease outbreaks. In 2017, the opioid crisis was also declared a public health emergency by the Department of Health and Human Services. That declaration was renewed on January 24, 2020.

Nurses are in the business of making patients their priority, putting them in a strong position to help ease the opioid crisis. Earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) can equip RNs with the advanced knowledge and skills to reduce risk and treat those already affected.

Coursework in the online RN to BSN program at Eastern Illinois University (EIU), for example, emphasizes public and community health, epidemiology, policy formation, and evidence-based practice. Coursework also further develops advanced health assessment skills for sound clinical judgement that includes pain management topics.

What Is the Opioid Epidemic?

Drug overdoses are a leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S. A majority of those deaths involve opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Public health emergencies typically involve an event in a specific location, like an earthquake in Puerto Rico, hurricane Dorian in North Carolina, or tropical storm Barry in Louisiana. Health professionals and emergency personnel are trained to respond quickly to help communities recover.

By comparison, the opioid crisis impacts every state in the country. The CDC explains that opioids fall into four categories:

  • Natural opioids (including morphine and codeine) and semi-synthetic opioids (drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone and oxymorphone)
  • Methadone, a synthetic opioid (used to treat opioid use disorder)
  • Synthetic opioids other than methadone (such as tramadol and fentanyl)
  • Heroin (an illicit opioid)

According to the CDC, methadone, oxycodone (such as OxyContin) and hydrocodone (such as Vicodin) are the most common drugs used in the case of prescription opioid overdoses.

A look at the numbers helps explain this public health emergency. The CDC reports that:

  • More than 700,000 people have died from a drug overdose from 1999 to 2017.
  • In 2017 alone, 47,600 (67.8%) of 70,237 deaths from drug overdose involved a prescription or illicit opioid.
  • The number of overdose deaths involving opioids was more than three times higher in 2017 than 1999. This includes prescription opioids and illegal opioids such as heroin.
  • On average, 192 deaths from drug overdose occur every day.

Nonfatal drug overdoses add to the concern. In encouraging news, the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC) reported a 5.1% drop in overdose death rates in the 12-month period ending December 2018.

How Does Addiction Happen?

According to the CDC, enough opioids were prescribed in 2015 to keep every American medicated 24 hours a day for three weeks.

There are a lot of stereotypes around addiction, but as the CDC points out, anyone taking prescription opioids can become addicted. Physical dependence is a side effect of prescription opioids.

Writing for Forbes, Joshua Cohen discusses the declining U.S. life expectancy due to “diseases of despair” that can result in “deaths of despair.” Diseases of despair include alcoholism, suicide and drug abuse. Drug abuse, for example, does more than cause health issues. It can put a serious strain on relationships and cause job loss and financial disaster, which can spiral into further depression and despair.

What Can RNs Do to Ease the Opioid Crisis?

Nurses have always been their patients’ most important advocates. As the healthcare professionals who spend the most time with patients, they have a unique opportunity to help prevent opioid abuse and addiction.

The key role nurses play in patient education puts them in the best position to help patients understand pain management. The American Nurses Association (ANA) notes that RNs can help address the epidemic by educating patients on the risks and benefits of pain treatment options, and by recognizing patients who may be at risk for substance use disorder.

Professional education and training can support RNs in this effort. For RNs who are considering a BSN, there may be no better time to get started. At EIU, for example, students build on basic assessment skills with the course Advanced Nursing Health Assessment. By completing the course, RNs equip themselves with the tools they need to recognize a patient’s risk for substance abuse disorders or the need for treatment.

RNs can also take advantage of continuing education (CE) courses to improve their understanding of topics such as pain management and substance misuse and abuse., for example, offers the webinar “Patient Counseling: Preventing and Combating Opioid Misuse.”

Staying up to date with research can further an RN’s ability to protect patients from harm. For example, nurses already know that their older patients have more risk factors. According to the CDC, the over-65 age group is also at a much greater risk of overdose from prescription opioids.

Year after year, RNs take the top spot in a Gallup poll on professional honesty and ethics. They outperform medical doctors, pharmacists and police officers. One reason is the strong relationships RNs build with their patients, which promote the trust and honest communication that can improve patient care and outcomes, and in the case of pain management, make a lifesaving difference.

Learn more about Eastern Illinois University’s online RN to BSN program.

Sources: Public Health Emergency Declarations

CDC: Opioid Overdose – What Can You Do to Prevent Opioid Overdose Deaths?

AJMC: What We’re Reading: Overdose Death Rates Drop

CDC: Opioid Prescribing

CDC: Opioid Data Analysis and Resources

Forbes: ‘Diseases of Despair’ Contribute to Declining U.S. Life Expectancy Nurses Find News Ways to Combat Opioid Epidemic

CDC: Opioid Overdose – Overdose Death Maps

National Institute on Drug Abuse: Dramatic Increases in Maternal Opioid Use and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

CDC: Opioid Overdose

Gallup: Nurses Continue to Rate Highest in Honesty, Ethics

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