NOTE: This article was originally published on USAToday.com.
Our nation is not yet succeeding in addressing the opioid crisis, as exemplified by the latest drug overdose numbers just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2016, we lost more than 63,000 Americans to drug overdoses broadly, an increase of 21% over the previous year.
The relentless devastation is being felt by far too many families and communities. The country’s response to this problem has been hampered by our failure to recognize addiction as a disease that requires comprehensive health solutions.
When the H1N1 flu pandemic broke out in this country just overeight years ago, the nation mobilized to contain the outbreak and treat the sick. We developed new vaccinations, public health protocols, physician education and raised awareness of the disease and how to prevent it. Congress even put partisan politics aside and passed emergency legislation to incentivize the manufacturing of pandemic countermeasures.
Our country deserves the same medical urgency today in addressing addiction as we had for H1N1, Ebola, cardiovascular disease or any other illness for which we’ve mobilized a national response. We have the tools we need to both prevent and treat opioid use disorders; we have the science and the interventions. We need to move forward with urgency to implement them.
Neuroscience has established how addiction hijacks key functions of the brain, replacing our natural, healthy instincts with a compulsion for the drug. Science has also yielded new medicines to treat opioid addiction, new technologies to support recovery, and new tools for clinicians. It’s time we put them to use in a large-scale effort to reimagine how we treat this disease, prioritizing a medical model of care for patients that addresses the long term needs of each patient to help them achieve and maintain recovery.
There are three areas in particular in which we, as a nation, must revamp our thinking and translate new ideas into transformative actions:
We’re seeing thousands of overdose cases overwhelming hospital emergency rooms. With most of them, we’re treating the immediate life-threatening situation without taking steps to prevent their recurrence. Protocols should be in place to link overdose patients with treatment and recovery programs. Hospitals, including the Mercy Health Systemand Berger Hospital in Ohio, are testing systemic approaches to introduce interventions to those who overdose. Their results should be watched and, if successful, replicated.
Families struggle when drug addiction enters their lives because there is no guidebook or comprehensive set of validated tools available to cope with what often becomes an all-consuming crisis. Those whose loved ones are afflicted with this disease are at a loss in understanding when and how to act. When a family member has a heart attack, we call 911. There is no such emergency response for addiction — in short, we need to make reliable resources more readily available.
Unlike cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS and other deadly illnesses, addiction is the one disease for which there is no well-funded, concentrated effort to find a cure. This needs to change. Entities like the National Institute on Drug Abuse and leaders in the biopharmaceutical sector know that an urgent effort is needed to develop more effective treatments for drug addiction and address that neurological craving for substances like opioids. However, such research requires funding and that’s where policymakers, industry and all affected stakeholders need to come together and focus on substantive action.
Drug addiction takes not just an emotional and physical toll on our society, but an economic one as well. Health care spending, lost productivity, and addiction-related crimes are costing us, as a nation, over $260 billion annually. Fortunately, we’re starting to see anecdotal successes to stem this crisis. By listening to families and experts in the field, we’re creating localized resources and evidence-based tools that will make a real difference in addressing substance use disorders. But these efforts need to be expanded if we’re to reach the millions struggling with addiction and bring America’s destructive trajectory to a halt.
This is a medical crisis virtually without precedent in our country and it needs to be treated accordingly, from the doctor’s exam room to the legislature. We can save millions of American lives if we start responding to addiction as a medical problem that’s as deserving of compassion and care as diabetes or cancer.
Retired general Barry McCaffrey, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under Bill Clinton, is chairman of the Addiction Policy Forum. Jessica Hulsey Nickel, who lost both her parents to addiction, is president and CEO of the forum.