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Essay: We Must Address Prescription Painkiller Addiction

Kratka Photography/Flickr

Lake Effect essayist Nilesh Patel looks at the death of a well-known hockey player two years ago as evidence that change is needed inside and outside of sports:

I wish I had known about Derek Boogaard before he died.

The 28-year old Canadian was a fan favorite in the National Hockey League when he lost his battle to addictive prescription painkillers two years ago.

Sadly, Boogaard’s story isn’t unique. Millions of Americans – from professional athletes like Boogaard to the car pool mom across the street – are fighting for their lives and may not even realize it.

Prescription opioid abuse is the fastest growing drug addiction in the country today. In 2010, there were enough painkiller prescriptions written to medicate every American around the clock for a month.

Think about that. We could medicate every American 24/7 with painkillers. And the numbers are growing. Prescription-related drug deaths are up more than 400 percent in the last 11 years. ER prescription drug-related cases total about half a million annually.

Patients want quick solutions to their medical problems. As a physician, I am expected to maintain a high level of patient satisfaction. Unfortunately, “patient satisfaction” is sometimes an oxymoron as it relates to a slow-but-steady treatment regimen, which is often the best approach.

In the world of instant online surveys and social media postings, anything less than immediate gratification may cause vocal (and viral) patient dissatisfaction. This contributes significantly to the over-prescription problem.

Change should start with my brother and sister physicians. We must guard against an over-reliance on prescription painkillers as a default in treating pain. We must find the root causes of pain problems and treat them with the best possible options, even if it takes longer to see results.

Lawmakers can also help. Under HIPAA, the patient privacy act, I am not allowed to tell anyone if I suspect a patient is abusing painkillers, or “doctor shopping” to inappropriately obtain even more drugs. Patient privacy must be sacrosanct, but don’t silence me when the next Derek Boogaard walks into my office. A law which “protects” a person at risk protects no one. Give doctors a chance to make a difference in our communities.

Finally, to my patients, you have a role in this as well. A potentially addictive drug is not a panacea. At best, it’s a stop-gap measure. You must push yourselves to lose the excess weight. To stop smoking. And to walk regularly. Even a small amount of exercise can minimize pain.

Derek Boogaard’s family is suing the NHL for negligence in their son’s death. If there is an upside to his loss, it is that the suit could force a long overdue paradigm shift in how powerful painkillers are prescribed.

The loss of any child, especially one so talented, is tragic. But there is a small window of hope for the Boogaard family their loss will be a bellwether event for the rest of us.

Let Derek Boogaard’s fatal overdose from prescription painkillers be the last. If that can happen – and this I believe with my heart – he will not have died in vain.

Dr. Nilesh Patel is a partner with Advanced Pain Managementclinics, and practices in Milwaukee in Green Bay.