Surgeon general asks physicians to lead way in fighting opioid epidemic

Troy Parks , News Writer

Check your mailbox over the next two weeks—there should be a letter from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, calling on all physicians throughout the nation to raise awareness and further efforts to end the opioid overdose epidemic.

Physicians are in a unique position of leadership when it comes to this epidemic—they are on the front lines witnessing the impact every day from emergency department overdoses to substance use disorder treatment. The letter asks directly for physicians’ help to solve and bring an end to the opioid overdose epidemic.

“We will educate ourselves to treat pain safely and effectively,” Dr. Murthy said in the letter, suggesting physicians examine the many resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“We will screen our patients for opioid use disorder and provide or connect them with evidence based treatment,” he said. “We can shape how the rest of the country sees addiction by talking about and treating it as a chronic illness, not a moral failing.”

This style of raising awareness has worked before. In 1988, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD, sent a seven-page brochure, “Understanding AIDS,” to all 107 million households in the country. The mailing raised awareness that the AIDS epidemic affected every one and not just a small group of Americans. The opioid epidemic the country now faces similarly affects those of all ages, races and economic status.

Dr. Murthy earlier this month launched, where physicians can take a pledge and make a commitment to end the opioid crisis.

“Years from now, I want us to look back and know that, in the face of a crisis that threatened our nation, it was our profession that stepped up and led the way,” he said in the letter.

Steven J. Stack, MD, AMA immediate-past president, in May issued an open letter to America’s physicians calling on them to re-examine prescribing practices and help reverse the epidemic. “We must accept and embrace our professional responsibility to treat our patients’ pain without worsening the current crisis,” he said.

The AMA Task Force to Reduce Prescription Opioid Abuse has been working to raise awareness of the crisis for almost two years. The task force put forth recommendations for physicians to register for and use state prescription drug monitoring programs, educate themselves on pain management and safe prescribing, support increased access to naloxone, reduce the stigma of substance use disorder and enhance access to comprehensive treatment.