4 ways nurses can help fight opioid abuse

Rob Brandt, regional manager at Medline, is all too familiar with the painkiller addiction.

In high school, his son Robby was given pain medication after having his wisdom teeth taken out. He liked the way he felt and functioned just fine. He started to get pain medication through his friends and before he knew it, he was addicted. After this first year in college, he decided to get clean and entered basic military training. Unfortunately, though, his past snuck up on him and the addiction returned. In October 2011, Robby died.

With an estimated 289,000 heroin users nationwide and unintentional overdoses from prescription pain medications increasing, opioid addiction has hit a fever pitch in the U.S.

According to the CDC, more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year previously recorded. From 2000 to 2014 nearly 500,000 people died from drug overdoses.

Not only is it killing thousands, opioid addiction has an "extended cost just of addiction and addiction treatment, cost to communities, cost to families. It's got a lot of tentacles that can lead to damage both financially and from a community standpoint," Mr. Brandt says.

Knowing this, and that nurses are often the first point of contact for patients, Mr. Brandt wanted to help educate nurses.

He worked with Martie Moore, RN, former CNO of Portland, Oregon-based Providence St. Vincent Medical Center and current CNO of Medline, to create a free online course for nurses called Battling the Painkiller Addiction Epidemic that aims to explain the significance of painkiller addiction in the U.S., the signs and symptoms of opioid abuse and withdrawal and alternatives to treating pain to help prevent abuse.

Development of the course started in 2015, and the course launched in February.

Here, Mr. Brandt and Ms. Moore share ways nurses can help fight opioid abuse.

1. Learn about it. Mr. Brandt believes educational resources, such as the course he developed with Medline, are important for nurses. As nurses become more aware of opioid abuse and the size of the epidemic, it gives them an opportunity to learn what to look for when they're taking care of patients. "Nurses are at the forefront of dealing with patient care and more apt to identify when a patient they're working with may be struggling with addiction," Mr. Brandt says.

Ms. Moore adds, "Greater research and media attention around opioid addiction has helped bring awareness to the issue. To make greater strides in fighting opioid abuse, nurses need to have a deeper understanding of what dependency and addition truly means."

Nurses also need to understand the neurobiology of dependence and its impact on the brain. As they better understand this disease in all practice settings, they will be able to intervene more quickly with the right interventions.  

Additionally, knowing that each individual responds differently to opioids, nurses must understand discrepancies and addiction behaviors in patients. Using open-ended questions and reflective language, for instance, can help ensure consistency in patient history, according to Ms. Moore.

Finally, a nurse should become educated on non-opioid methodology for pain management when the situation is appropriate. For example, a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that acupuncture is effective in reducing people's chronic pain — more so than standard pain treatment.

2. Realize addiction impacts the entire family. It creates fear and chaos in the home and can split families apart. There is a lack of awareness, stigma, and families are either afraid to ask for help or don't know where to go for help. Nurses are in tune and engaged with the family, so it gives them an opportunity to have that interaction with the family, to let them know there are resources available, according to Mr. Brandt. "Nurses can be the pivot point for an addict to get help. They can be the pivot point for the family to be able to engage in help. They can be the pivot point to prescribe or not prescribe when they identify certain warning signs in a patient," he says.

3. Educate patients and their families. It is important to educate patients on painkillers at the point of origin, whether that be the point of prescription or the point of the pharmacy. So when a nurse provides information on a prescription, that nurse must communicate to the patient that they are taking an addictive substance, as well as dictate warning signs of addiction. Nurses should also communicate to patients the importance of disposing of unused medication. With Mr. Brandt, his son exhibited warning signs, but his family wasn't educated enough to identify them. So he says that conversation at the point of origin can be critical to raising that awareness for a family, and also even connecting them with resources to deepen that sense of awareness.

4. Rely on nurse leadership. Nurse leaders need to make sure their organizations' nurses are educated on opioid addiction. Recently, at the American Organization of Nurse Executives meeting, this issue was discussed as one of the most pressing issues facing hospitals and other care settings across America.

Mr. Brandt acknowledges that educational courses are a great starting point to fighting opioid abuse, but nurses must also rely on nurse leadership to recognize the importance of education on this issue. Ongoing education can improve patient care and outcomes. Ms. Moore says understanding complexities of addiction will allow nurses to effectively deal with the epidemic, and in the end, save lives.


More articles on workforce and labor management:

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Nearly 2,000 Yale med school workers and supporters protest job cuts
Hospitals add nearly 23k jobs in April



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