Opioids are synthetic or partially synthetic manufactured drugs that mimic opiates — drugs derived from the poppy plant, such as morphine and codeine — and are used to treat pain. Today, doctors prescribe these powerful painkillers to people who are in pain from sports injuries, surgery or cancer.
However, people can misuse opioids by not following instructions from their doctor, taking more than prescribed, taking other people’s pills or taking opioids to get high. Misuse over time can lead to overuse, addiction and even overdose.
On average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In 2016, the number of opioid overdose deaths in the United States was five times higher than it was nearly two decades ago. As a result, the federal government declared a public health emergency in fall 2018.
Patients who regularly take opioids need to be aware of the risks of opioid use, and take precautions to use them safely. One major concern is the combined use of opioids, anxiety medications and muscle relaxers. This trio of drugs is known as the “holy trinity” or “triple threat” due to the dangerous risks they pose to a person’s health; taking all three can result in death.
Sharp Health Plan helps patients prevent opioid overuse with its opioid cumulative dose program. The primary goal is to reduce the likelihood of patients receiving unsafe levels of opioid medicines. Prescription drug monitoring programs, like the opioid safety program, are critical to keeping communities safe.
“Anyone can become addicted to opioids,” says Cary B. Shames, DO, chief medical officer of Sharp Health Plan. “That’s why it’s important to be proactive in preventing overuse and protecting patient safety.”
Sharp Health Plan’s opioid cumulative dose program reviews information for members who are receiving opioids from two or more prescribers. When these members fill prescriptions at the pharmacy, the program checks the morphine-equivalent dosing of their drugs to help avoid overuse. “This coordinated care and integration of members’ health care information is critical to preventing opioid overuse or abuse,” says Dr. Shames.
Since launching the program in 2017, Sharp Health Plan reports that among its membership — a total of more than 145,000 people — none have overlapping prescriptions for these “triple threat” drugs.
The best thing you can do to protect yourself from opioid overuse is to turn away from social pressure to use drugs “for fun” and to take medicines only as prescribed by your doctor — and only if absolutely needed. Dr. Shames adds, “And only take them for a short period of time.”
People who take more than one prescription can help lower the risk of dangerous drug interactions with these tips from Judy Truong, PharmD, director of pharmacy benefits for Sharp Health Plan:
• Keep all prescriptions at the same pharmacy, or same pharmacy chain.
• Make sure your medical record includes all medications currently taken, and share that information when receiving a new prescription.
If you are worried about someone you know, please call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Treatment Referral hotline at 1-800-662-HELP.