Preventing opioid addictions before they start

Back in 2015, before opioids were regu­larly making news headlines, SFM began a concerted effort to help injured workers reduce or quit use of the addictive pain­killers.

Since then numerous individuals have thanked our claims team for helping them “get their lives back,” sometimes after years of disability. And with drug overdose deaths at an all-time high in the U.S. due primarily to the opioid epidemic, these efforts can be life-saving, too.

We’re continuing to help injured workers get off these drugs, and we’re now focus­ing more on preventing long-term use in the first place.

Long-term opioid use reduced significantly

In 2015, we hired a prescription drug clini­cal review nurse to identify high-risk cases and work with injured workers and their doctors to prevent opioid addiction.

Since then we’ve seen a reduction of 77 percent in the number of injured workers taking a higher dosage of opioid painkillers than is recommended for long-term use, said SFM Director of Medical Services, Ceil Jung, R.N., BSN, CCM.

Among a group of injured workers who were taking opioids in 2015, 87 percent have been weaned off completely, or are taking lower doses.

Our nurse sends letters to treating doctors of injured workers taking high doses of the drugs, and then works with injured workers and their doctors to provide weaning schedules that help them reduce or quit using the drugs over time.

While we’re happy with the success of these efforts, we’re not backing down. Rather, we’re now focused on making sure short-term use doesn’t evolve into long-term dependence on the drugs.

Focus shifts to early intervention

Opioids are generally recommended for short-term pain relief due to an injury or surgery.

They’re much more likely to become problematic when they are used for longer periods of time. When used long term, they can increase a patient’s sensitivity to pain, requiring higher doses for the same level of pain relief. This pattern can con­tribute to dependence.

“Our best chance of success is early inter­vention — not letting them get to 90 days of use,” Jung said.

To do this, our prescription drug clinical review nurse monitors injured workers who are undergoing surgery. If three weeks after surgery they’re still taking opioid painkillers, she will send a letter to the treating doctor.

“Doctors have been very receptive and cooperative in helping get injured workers off opioid painkillers before an addiction can develop,” Jung said. “We’re thankful for increased awareness of the dangers of these drugs.”

Injured workers also receive copies of the letters we send to their doctors. This often­times spurs them to request that their doc­tors take them off these prescriptions.

A combination of public awareness, stiffer regulations and deliberate effort has helped us improve and perhaps even save lives. We take our responsibility to injured workers seriously, and will continue to work at preventing dependence and addic­tion.

“Opioid addiction can destroy lives and tear families apart,” Jung said. “If we can help free an individual from addiction or prevent one from ever taking root, that’s something we can really feel good about.”

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