Tackling Prescription Drug Abuse

The opioid epidemic has become one of the most pressing public health problems in the U.S, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people of all ages and walks of life each year.

Now health professionals, federal officials and community leaders are collaborating to fight prescription drug abuse by focusing on prevention, education, treatment and intervention measures.

Skyrocketing use

Drug overdoses involving opioids nearly quadrupled between 1999 and 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Nearly 44,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2013, including more than 16,000 from opioid painkillers.1 Many of today’s heroin users started as users of prescription opioids.

The Prescription Drug Monitoring Program points to a number of factors driving the epidemic, including the increased tendency to dispense prescription drugs, the development of new formulations of opiate analgesics and increased marketing by pharmaceutical companies. In fact, enough prescription drugs were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American around the clock for a month.2

Among the most widely prescribed medications are hydrocodone/acetaminophen (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin) and methadone, although tranquilizers, stimulants and depressants also exacerbate the problem. Even prescription-strength cold medicine may contain ingredients that elicit euphoric or sedative effects.3

A call to action

Across the country, health experts, policymakers, legislators and community leaders are mobilizing to find creative ways to reverse this deadly trend. Among those leading the efforts are astute public health professionals, such as those who have graduated from Creighton University’s Master of Public Health4 program, which prepares students to effectively evaluate, plan and implement initiatives against public health concerns like prescription drug abuse.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has announced several initiatives to combat the epidemic. These include expanding access to buprenorphine (a medication to treat opioid use disorder); requiring Indian Health Service prescribers to check state Prescription Drug Monitoring Program databases before prescribing opioids; and eliminating any potential financial incentives for doctors to prescribe opioids. HHS is also launching a dozen new scientific studies on opioid misuse and pain treatment.5

In addition, experts are looking to lawmakers to adopt legislation that addresses physical and mental status examination laws, doctor shopping laws, the regulation of pain management clinics, overdose emergency response immunity and access to Naloxone, a life-saving antidote to heroin and opioid overdose.6

Education and treatment

Some initiatives target clinician education to help health care workers better understand the risks and benefits of opioid therapy, identify alternative pain management approaches and assess patients who are at risk to misuse drugs. Others call for changing medical practice by encouraging providers to prescribe only the number of doses they expect patients to need in acute pain settings.7 A 2016 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, for example, found a large range in the propensity of hospitals to prescribe opioids to elderly patients.8

Consumer education is critical too. Community education efforts to inform the public about the safe use of drugs, proper medication storage security at home, and proper disposal of drugs, including drug take-back opportunities, need to be strengthened. Teaching first responders, as well as the family and friends of those abusing prescription drugs, how to use Naloxone could potentially save lives.9

Many experts also want to improve the effectiveness and availability of drug abuse prevention programs and step up measures to ensure an adequate supply of substance abuse and mental health professionals, given the demand for their services.

Prescription drug abuse is a complex societal problem that calls for solutions crafted by individuals who possess critical thinking, creative problem-solving and leadership skills as well compassion and empathy. To learn more about how you can promote positive change through public health initiatives, explore Creighton University’s online Master of Public Health degree program.


[1] https://aspe.hhs.gov/basic-report/opioid-abuse-us-and-hhs-actions-address-opioid-drug-related-overdoses-and-deaths
[2] http://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2015/12/08/15/11/prevention-and-intervention-strategies-to-decrease-misuse-of-prescription-pain-medication
[3] http://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2015/12/08/15/11/prevention-and-intervention-strategies-to-decrease-misuse-of-prescription-pain-medication
[4] http://online.creighton.edu/mph/masters-in-public-health
[5] http://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2016/07/06/hhs-announces-new-actions-combat-opioid-epidemic.html
[6] http://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2015/12/08/15/11/prevention-and-intervention-strategies-to-decrease-misuse-of-prescription-pain-medication
[7] http://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2015/12/08/15/11/prevention-and-intervention-strategies-to-decrease-misuse-of-prescription-pain-medication
[8] http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2527391
[9] http://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2015/12/08/15/11/prevention-and-intervention-strategies-to-decrease-misuse-of-prescription-pain-medication