Addiction to prescription painkillers is an epidemic in the United States and around the world, and it’s no surprise when we take a look at the statistical information around how often these drugs are prescribed. Along with this serious problem comes the concern for heroin addiction. When the prescriptions run out and the doctor hopping isn’t working anymore, the addicted person is turning to the streets to get their needs met more and more. But on the streets, name brand prescription painkillers can run upwards of $80-100 per pill. When people can’t afford that, they start turning to other means to feed their addiction. This is where heroin comes into play.

The skyrocketing number of heroin addicts among affluent teens who started by using prescription painkillers is disconcerting for doctors, such as family practitioner Elian Paiuk.

According to Dr Paiuk, who practices at Kaiser Permanente, during his medical training in the 1990’s, doctors were pressured to prescribe more prescription painkillers. He says that patient advocates and the California legislature pushed doctors to provide painkillers to relieve people’s suffering.

“Pain became the fifth vital sign along with blood pressure and pulse,” says Paiuk, “and we were supposed to be paying more attention to it. And that was actually reinforced very heavily during my training that we needed to actually prescribe more pain medication.”

According to Dr Steven Seinberg, who is a regional chief of family medicine at Kaiser, this pressure for doctors to prescribe more prescription painkillers to provide better pain management for patients happened to come at  a time with there was a nationwide marketing push by drug companies for these specific drugs. As the problem with prescription painkillers became more noticeable, it became Dr Steinberg’s mission to decrease the number of prescriptions and lessen the number of pills that fall into the wrong hands, such as school kids who are taking them recreationally.

Steinberg and his colleagues began carrying out their mission through a program that teaches Kaiser doctors how to safely prescribe pain medication. They learn facts about narcotics often overlooked in med school and residency.

And this program that educates Kaiser doctors about the addictive qualities and dangers of these prescription painkillers seems to be working.

“And what we’ve seen is about a 75 to 80 percent reduction in the prescribing of brand name Oxycontin within Kaiser Permanente,” he says. “It represents a significant decrease in the amount of Oxycontin that’s floating around southern California.”

Steinberg says Vicodin prescriptions, too, are down –  by a whopping 95 percent. Kaiser doctors are now more likely to offer patients generic prescriptions that have little, if any, street value, as well as alternative treatments such as physical therapy.

Hopefully other medical professionals and organizations will start implementing a program similar to the one developed by Dr Steinberg. Deaths due to prescription painkillers are unnecessary and the rate of addiction to these drugs is extremely high.

The CDC says that in 2010, 12 million people reported using prescription pain pills for something other than their intended purpose, and the most recent CDC data show that overdoses from such abuse claim nearly 15,000 lives a year.

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