Opioids: A Giant Headache for Employers?
The health and economic impact of headaches is huge. Each year, more than 30 million American adults suffer from migraines or other severe forms of headaches. Estimates suggest the nationwide cost of headaches to employers reaches $13 billion due to absenteeism and reduced productivity at work, plus billions more in direct medical expenses.
There are huge variations in quality of care when it comes to the treatment of headaches, specifically regarding improperly written prescriptions. Many of the medications that offer short-term relief from the intensity of a headache can lead to increased headache severity and frequency over time. This problem has become so widespread that medication overuse is now estimated to account for 20% of the total headache disease burden.
Opioids and Barbiturates
The risk of medication overuse headache (MOH) is particularly high with the overuse of opioids and barbiturates. (A barbiturate is a class of sedatives and sleep-inducing drugs derived from barbituric acid.) Well-informed physicians will only resort to using opioids or barbiturates for headaches as a last resort, yet surveys show that many doctors remain shockingly unaware of the risks associated with these medications. For example, a National Headache Foundation survey found that only 54% of primary care physicians are aware that barbiturates cause medication overuse headache. Essentially, people are experiencing more headaches from headache relief.
A recent analysis of doctor prescription patterns studied the rate at which primary care physicians and neurologists prescribe the three medications believed to be most responsible for causing medication overuse headache: Butalbital (a barbiturate), Hydrocodone and Oxycodone (the opioids most commonly prescribed for headaches). The ramifications of the prescribing habits of the bottom ranked physicians cannot be overstated. The opioid epidemic in the U.S. has reached critical mass, resulting in over 1,000 overdose deaths per MONTH from prescription opioids alone.
Between 2001 and 2016, sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. have nearly quadrupled. Butalbital prescriptions have become so problematic that many European countries have resorted to banning the medication entirely. It remains available in the U.S. and accounts for a 15% of total headache prescriptions each year.
A patient’s chances of developing medication overuse headache can be dramatically reduced by simply ensuring that they’re treated by a doctor who understands the risks associated with opioids and barbiturates. When physicians aren’t properly educated on the side effects of opioid drugs and prescribe them too freely, employers not only lose time and productivity, but employees are often out for longer periods of time as well. For the patient, this can mean the difference between a quick, effective course of treatment and a life-altering addiction – or even death. For employers, billions of dollars in medical costs and lost productivity are at stake.
Manage your risk by educating your employees on efficient treatment options. Reach out to a member of the ‘A’ Team for ideas or assistance on how to implement effective strategies that make a difference.
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