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Research is Key in the Fight Against the Opioid Abuse Epidemic

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that today the vast majority of drug overdoses in the U.S. stem from prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin, which are now claiming the lives of more than 27,000 Americans a year. A spike in the number of prescriptions for opioid medications was the prime factor behind the dramatic surge in opioid use and abuse.

While in 1991 doctors wrote about 76 million prescriptions, the number of prescriptions for opioid pain relievers had nearly tripled by 2011, according to a National Institute on Drug Abuse report. The increased accessibility, potency and low cost of heroin compared to prescription opioids also contributed to the unprecedented rise in opioid abuse and overdose deaths. The CDC also reports that by 2014, opioid overdose deaths jumped more than 400% and at least half of them involve a prescription opioid such as hydrocodone, methadone, and oxycodone.

A 2014 CDC study revealed that in 2012, a total of 12 states had more opioid pain reliever prescriptions than people. In Alabama and Tennessee, doctors wrote 142.9 and 142.8, respectively per 100 people, while in South Carolina there were 101.8 opioid prescriptions per 100 people written. Researchers believe that this variation in terms of opioid prescriptions points to a lack of consensus among physicians in different states regarding the amount of painkillers that should be prescribed for pain management. In addition, research suggests that higher rates of opioid pain relievers do not necessarily result in improved health outcomes and patient satisfaction.

Family physician Dr. Monnie Singleton of Singleton Health Center in Orangeburg, South Carolina strongly believes that further research is paramount in the fight against the opioid epidemic in the state and the entire nation. Emphasizing the fact that it's very easy for patients to obtain opioids from their primary care doctors or emergency rooms for virtually any condition, Dr. Singleton expressed his concern about the over-prescription of opioid pain relievers (OPRs) which he deems to be the bulk of the issue. He added that he has seen OPRs being prescribed for mild and common medical conditions such as sore throat, cough, and urinary tract infections and although prescription opioids can prove effective in controlling coughs, it's not necessary to prescribe them for coughs when there are safer, non-addictive alternatives to cough relief.

Dr. Singleton provides comprehensive treatment that encompasses group counseling sessions which are held once a month and are primarily aimed at rebuilding the confidence of opioid users. In a recent interview, 33-year old Kim, one of his group members, confessed that she became addicted to Vicodin and then Percocet at the early age of 19 due to the over-prescription of these opioids by her doctor. Dr. Monnie Singleton said he is particularly proud of Kim's progress towards recovery as Kim got her GED and is now a certified welder who is able to find housing for her and her children.

Dr. Singleton also stated that more emphasis needs to be put on effective, medication-assisted treatment of this chronic disease that often encapsulates a strong genetic element. He urged providers to make use of the latest technology available and perform DNA testing to see who is genetically more prone to opioid use disorders.

Reiterating the need for more research in terms of this potentially fatal disease, he said he hopes that a condition known as " reward deficiency syndrome" ( RDS) will be one of the focus points of the research. RDS is characterized by reward-seeking behavior and addictions stemming from some genetic variations.

Dr. Singleton is also hopeful that Singleton Health Center, which is certified to write prescriptions for the treatment of opioid use disorders is going to open a new facility in South Carolina with sufficient capacity for larger group counseling sessions because increasing access to getting help is absolutely crucial. For 5 years since Singleton Health Center has been treating patients with opioid use disorders , the facility has been limited to treating 100 patients at any given time, with an ongoing waiting list of 50-75 patients.

Dr. Singleton would very much be interested in knowing just how many opioid users are covered under Medicare and Medicaid because he senses that most of them are getting them paid for through government programs and this is disconcerting given that the government pays for the prescriptions.

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