Surgeon General to Urge Prescribers to Fight Opioid Epidemic

Alicia Ault

April 11, 2016

CLEVELAND ― Physicians, nurses, dentists, and others who prescribe opioids will soon be receiving a letter from US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, urging them to step up efforts to combat the country's opioid epidemic.

Dr Murthy likened his forthcoming overture — which will be made in a letter to 1.1 million prescribers this spring ― to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's 1987 call to action on the AIDS epidemic.

"I believe that there could not be a more important time to mobilize the medical community again," Dr Murthy told a gathering of the Association of Health Care Journalists here on April 9.

This fall, Dr Murthy's office will issue a report on substance use, addiction, and health — the first on the topic since US surgeons general began issuing reports in 1964. "It might surprise you to learn there hasn't been a surgeon general's report on this topic. I believe it's high time we had one," said Dr Murthy, noting that substance use disorders are not new.

The report will cover issues concerning prescription drug use, as well as use of alcohol and other substances, he said. He acknowledged that "alcohol-related disorders are a major source of illness and death in our country." Dr Murthy said he expects the report to "bring together the best available science on prevention, treatment, and recovery, so we can equip our healthcare providers with the tools they need to take the best possible care of patients."

Dr Murthy will first issue what he says is a "call to action to healthcare practitioners" aimed at improving opioid prescribing practices. Prescribers will be asked to identify patients at risk for addiction, connect patients to treatment, help patients understand the risks and benefits of opioids, and help "replace stigma with treatment," said Dr Murthy.

The surgeon general will travel across the United States, including "some of the hardest hits states, to bring this information to clinicians and directly to the public" and to highlight examples of best practices.

He said he aims to "help us move the needle on addressing addiction ― something we've needed to do for decades in this country."

Most importantly, he said, his office wants to "help the country to see addiction not as a moral failing, not as a bad choice, but as a chronic disease" that deserves as much attention and skill as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.

"We cannot heal as a nation without compassion," he said. "Compassion is what allows us to stop judging and to start helping, and to step beyond our own bias and offer people support."

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