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Utah’s prescription for the opioid crisis

Utah’s ongoing battle in the opioid crisis has accomplished much to reduce overdose related deaths. UVU is doing its part in providing counseling and support for students, staff and faculty affected by opioid abuse and other substance abuse issues.

According to Ryan Udall at the MHS office, the university’s counselors assist in helping individuals at the university facing substance abuse issues. Additionally, the health services website provides links to resources outside the university where students and faculty can get help in dealing with addiction issues.

Statewide, there has been progress on a number of fronts. According to an October 2018 press release from the Utah Department of Health, overdose deaths from opioid prescriptions fell for the third consecutive year. In April 2018, Salt Lake County filed suit against 19 pharmaceutical companies for their role in the crisis.

Despite the progress, it is difficult to contain the crisis due to the scale of its effect, which is aided in part by the accessibility of opioids. Individuals who work in treatment and prevention understand the measure of its scope and the effects on those impacted by it.

“I see people who have addictions as people and not as anything else. I’m able to separate the addiction from the person,” says Brian Alba, a prevention specialist at the Utah County Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment.

Malyce Warner, a prevention specialist who works alongside Alba, said, “It definitely opens your eyes to a group of people in our population that are oftentimes ignored [and] underserved.”

Because Utah’s culture is largely influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, personal choices regarding medication are affected. Robbyn Scribner, a research fellow with the Utah Women in Leadership Project, who also works with the Women’s Success Center at UVU, says researchers and experts are aware of this.

“What they hypothesize is happening in Utah is that a lot of, especially women but men as well, maybe are not as well informed about the dangers of prescription drug use,” she says. This lack of education even among professionals is having a detrimental effect on the situation.

Utahns are less likely to use street or illegal drugs but they are susceptible to abuse prescription drugs, according to Scribner. Doctors may be prescribing legitimately but some patients misuse their prescriptions.

“Doctors need to become more informed and change the way they’re prescribing,”says Scribner, “while patients need to follow doctor’s advice and not go rogue if they become addicted.”

 Even then, some say the responsibility is still on the patient.“When it comes to our personal risk, we are responsible for ourselves,” says Warner. 

However, she says that is not to say doctors shouldn’t have a responsibility in the matter. It ultimately comes down to the level of cooperation between doctor and patient to be informed of side effects and other potential problems.

Still, the drop in the state’s overdose death rate is good news. Different factors have contributed to the numbers coming down. Some of them have been policy centered while others have been in methods used to keep doctors and patients informed.

“What happens in a lot of circumstances is that doctors maybe don’t have the right comprehensive tracking systems,” says Scribner. 

To address this problem, the state has set up a tracking system for doctors to keep patients from being over-prescribed medication.

The Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL) database is a system where doctors can access patient records before filling a prescription. They can also see the history of prescriptions filled by the patient as well as when the last prescription was filled.

The database also helps doctors see what medications patients have been on or are currently taking. That way, doctors will know what amount to prescribe to the patient or whether to prescribe any medication at all.

“It attempts to limit doctor shopping,” says Alba, indicating that some patients seek other doctors to fill their prescriptions when their refills end. Unfortunately, it does not prevent patients from going to the street and getting cheaper alternatives like heroin.

On the legal front, methods are in place and others in the works to further keep the numbers of opioid overdose deaths down. Though nothing is completely foolproof, every effort counts to keep the public safe and well informed.

On May 31,2018 the State of Utah announced their lawsuit against Purdue Pharma LP after talks with the company failed to produce any settlement on the opioid crisis. The state also set up the Utah Opioid Task force which works with “groups nationally and across the state to address the effects of opioid addiction,” according to the Utah State Attorney General’s website.

As for UVU, along with counseling, the university has a drug and alcohol policy section in the Wellness Program website. It provides links to information on heroin addiction and places in Utah County where individuals can seek treatment.

The university’s Resources for Students and Parents website also provides links with phone numbers to external agencies that assist in treatment for substance abuse.

From in-patient care to life-saving medication being made publicly available, Utah and other states have made significant strides in the opioid crisis. Although there’s still more to be done, the accomplishments made are steps toward an end to this crisis.

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