Much has been opined about the opioid crisis including what caused it, whose fault is it, and what can be done about it. Across the country, opioid related overdose deaths deceased four percent. Yet, Tennessee’s rate of overdoses continues to climb despite measures taken at the state level.
While many of the measures I have advocated for have passed, some of the more vital measures have not. The opioid crisis is a multifaceted problem with many intertwined and complicated parts. Unfortunately, many have a myopic view of the issue while others are just looking to do something for the sake of claiming they did something. Add in that many are advocating for seemingly unrelated issues, and it is easier to understand why this epidemic is a difficult problem to solve.
Understanding the supply and demand dynamics of the opioid crisis can help us find solutions, but it requires those looking for solutions to have open minds and a willingness to step away from failed strategies. To appreciate the supply and demand dynamics of opioids, one must first understand that there is both a legitimate and illicit demand for and supply of opioids.
Legitimate demand comes in the form of patients. Whether it is an acute injury like a broken bone, a perioperative need either before, during, or after surgery, or chronic pain associated with conditions like cancer, failed surgery, or a nerve injury, there is a consistent and endless market for the use of opioids. And while there are new drugs reaching the market all the time, until one becomes as effective in alleviating pain while minimizing side effects, the demand for opioids will continue.
Ironically, another legitimate demand from patients is that from one that is addicted to opioids. Patients who are addicted to heroin, fentanyl, or another opioid often undergo treatment in which methadone — another opioid — is often substituted. Buprenorphine, an agonist that produces opioid effects and an antagonist that blocks certain opioid effects is frequently used for treatment as well.
Illicit demand comes in several forms. Obviously, the most common cases involve those who are addicted to opioids. The process usually begins with initial use that may lead to tolerance, then to dependency and finally addiction. It may start as a legitimate patient who progresses to addiction or addiction that develops via recreational usage. Regardless of the route taken, addiction drives much of the illicit demand.
Another form of illicit demand includes those looking for a recreational use. Whether it is in the form of a party or one looking for a route of escape from reality or a psychological, physical, or emotional trauma, there are those who turn to opioids, which increases demand for the deadly drugs.
Perhaps, one of the more unfortunate illicit demands for opioids is from legitimate patients who have a physical need, but are under treated or mistreated by the system. Some patients in chronic pain or with cancer pain may look to alcohol, marijuana, or street opioids in order to function normally.
As physicians and as legislators, treating patients with a legitimate need for an opioid while preventing or decreasing the illicit demand is where many efforts need to be addressed. Decreasing the risk for patients to get on the on ramp to addiction is vitally important; it is just as important to prevent those who have gotten off the addiction highway from getting back on by ensuring there is proper addiction treatment available.
The supply side also has a legitimate and an illicit aspect. Legitimate supply comes in the form of a prescription from a medical related need by a patient. Opioids are supplied via a doctor, pharmacy, or hospital. Real patients with legitimate needs delivered in a safe, and effective manner drives much of the supply side of opioids.
Unfortunately, the legitimate supply side has been contaminated by the government, big pharma, and unscrupulous providers leading to an oversupply of unnecessary opioids into the marketplace. The government, by making pain the fifth vital sign, tying Medicare payments to patient satisfaction surveys, and instituting laws like the Intractable Pain Treatment Act didn’t just incentivize prescribing opioids, they mandated it. Big Pharma pushed controlled release opioids like OxyContin as a safer alternative, and many providers abused the new medical landscape placing pain profit over patients.
The illicit supply side of opioids involves two main sources: diversion or the selling or distribution of FDA approved opioids, as well as the trafficking of illicitly manufactured opioids. Unused prescription opioids and addiction treatment opioids are being sold on our streets or used in a recreational setting, and it has been a major concern in their illicit supply.
While appropriate and inappropriate uses of FDA approved opioids are a major concern, especially when mixed with other drugs, it is the trafficking of illicit opioids like heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil that should scare people. As an anesthesiologist, I treat patients with fentanyl almost every day. For its indicated use and under the right medical direction, it is a valuable tool. However, when traffickers can possess millions of lethal doses and push it into our communities, it becomes a major health concern. To make matters worse, many of these illicit opioids are being manufactured in China and wind up in our communities through Mexico.
As one can see, the supply and demand side of the opioid equation is quite intricate. If we truly want to be able to address this complex issue, focusing on one aspect while avoiding or neglecting the others will ultimately lead to failure. It is going to take a multifaceted approach with a willingness to attack all sides of the supply and demand equation to get Tennessee on the pathway to a better tomorrow.
Bryan Terry, MD (R-Murfreesboro) is the Chairman of the Tennessee House Health Committee. This is Part One of a two part series on Opioids: Supply and Demand.