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How the Opioid Crisis Hit Washington State

By Hardwick & Pendergast, P.S. on July 5, 2018

Washington has been on the forefront of the battle against opioid addiction in America, which has been skyrocketing in recent years. As stated by the Office of the Attorney General, “In 2015, 718 Washingtonians died from opioid overdose, more than from car accidents. The majority of drug overdose deaths—more than six out of ten—involve an opioid. Nationwide, 1 in 4 people who receive prescription opioids for chronic pain in primary care settings struggle with addiction.”

These statistics are staggering. Not only are we losing friends, coworkers, and family members to opioid addiction, but the state and country are suffering economically as well. According to a report released by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, “The economic cost of the opioid crisis to Washington State in 2016 amounted to more than $9 billion in combined fatalities, spending on health care, treatment for addiction, criminal justice, and lost productivity.”

The opioid epidemic begets many important questions. How did American healthcare allow things to get to such a bad state? Are pharmaceutical companies to blame? And what can we do about it?

What Are Opioids, and What Is Opioid Addiction?

Opioids are drugs that act on the opioid receptors in your brain. When you take an opioid, your body lowers the amount of pain signals it sends to your brain. Opioids also affect how your brain responds to pain. Some of the more well-known opioids are codeine, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine, fentanyl, and oxycodone.

Opioids can be safe when used correctly, meaning if patients use them in the allowed doses and for the duration of time prescribed. But they do pose a high potential for addiction, especially when used for long-term pain management. Because higher doses are necessary to have an effect on pain, many people start misusing opioids, and many doctors don’t think twice about writing prescriptions for more.

Symptoms of Opioid Addiction

It’s important to realize when someone has a problem with opioids to get that person help. The signs of opioid abuse show up as physical, behavioral, and psychological symptoms. Some of these are:

  • drowsiness
  • constipation
  • mood swings
  • anxiety
  • bad coordination
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • making bad decisions

If you suspect someone has taken too many opioids, call 911 immediately. Signs of an overdose include: unresponsiveness, slow and erratic breathing or no breathing, vomiting, fainting, and small pupils.

How the Opioid Crisis Took Hold in Washington

Washington State pain experts and health professionals are finding ways to combat the problem and reduce the rates of prescription painkiller overdose deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prioritized prescription opioid overdose as the nation’s top health concern and rolled out a new national guidelines for prescribing opioids. The guidelines urge physicians to use opioids much more cautiously and at lower doses. They also state that providers should consult a pain specialist “when a patient’s daily dose reaches a threshold level known for substantial increased risk of overdose.”

Gary M. Franklin, a research professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, and his colleagues discovered a jump in opioid-related overdose deaths in workers covered by the Washington workers’ compensation system. They found that people who were hurt during a job and were prescribed pain medication would often overdose. The researchers linked this phenomenon with the lax prescribing laws in the late 1990s. An article about the discovery reads, “Eased regulations and heavy marketing from pharmaceutical companies enabled physicians to prescribe more pain medication, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, to more patients, especially those with less life-threatening conditions…It created what Franklin called the ‘worst man-made epidemic in medical history,’ a prescription-opioid epidemic that has left more than 175,000 Americans dead, and millions more addicted.”

Can a Doctor Be Held Liable for Opioid Addiction?

There is nothing worse than watching a friend or loved one waste away to addiction. Physicians have a duty to their patients. Their patients trust them with their health, their lives. They rely on the doctor’s clinical skills to keep them safe. Your doctor should be your advocate, not the person who sends you into a spiral of addiction by prescribing pain medication you did not need. Can you sue your doctor for medical malpractice if you or a family member got addicted to opioids? You can, but it may be an uphill battle to prove the physician’s negligence.

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