Industry Voices—Healthcare companies and employers must act on the opioid crisis

While the struggles of families and individuals staring down harrowing opioid addiction have been chronicled wide and far in recent years, the connection to their employment and how it might affect businesses is relatively underreported.

Approximately 75% of U.S. employers say their workplace has been directly affected by opioid usage, but only 17% feel well prepared to deal with the issue, according to a 2019 National Safety Council survey.

Workplace overdose deaths involving drugs or alcohol have increased by at least 25% for five consecutive years, and the prescription opioid crisis caused nearly one million people to miss work in 2015. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the opioid epidemic costs the U.S. economy approximately $78.5 billion a year.

When employees in a company's workforce have an opioid problem, it not only affects their job performance and absenteeism but also harms the other employees around them on a personal level—bringing added stress, concern and even fear to the workplace.

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Employers are increasingly concerned about this crisis and are seeking to identify whether their workforce has problems with prescription opioid addiction and abuse. This is a situation that requires all hands on deck.

A division of the Department of Health and Human Services called the Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force earlier this year released a report with suggested practices that can be used to manage chronic pain as an opioid alternative, including massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic care and yoga.

But prior to offering potential solutions such as the above, healthcare providers, provider networks, employers and employee assistance programs needed to use extensive clinical knowledge and the latest data analysis technology to develop and adopt innovative solutions, educating and informing employers to recognize the problem at hand followed by how to address it so employees can stay in their workplace. 

An example of the type of initiative healthcare leaders should be focused on is our COPE (Chronic Opioid Program and Education) program at First Choice Health, which was launched earlier this year to help address these issues. COPE offers data analysis and outreach on an ongoing basis, providing much-needed support and education to our clients and their workforces who are struggling with chronic opioid misuse and abuse.

Using opioid prescribing metrics developed by Washington state’s Bree Collaborative, a workforce that developed opioid prescribing metrics aimed at helping implement opioid guidelines, we built a comprehensive population health opioid use report to identify potential risks within a client's workforce.

One high-risk group includes anyone who has been prescribed opioids together with sedatives for more than 60 days within a three-month period—a potentially deadly combination. 

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Once those at risk have been identified, medical and behavioral health case managers reach out to the employees and confidentially discuss their prescription use and treatment options, which may include alternative pain management or counseling. We'll continue to work with them to help improve their health and educate them on the best recovery and treatment options.

This particular program is as confidential as it gets, providing employers more tools to help employees in need without specifically identifying them, and, of course, any program or effort focused on solving the opioid program in the workplace must be completely anonymous and HIPAA-compliant.

As the first step to fighting the opioid epidemic is identifying the problem, I also encourage healthcare providers and partners to work with the community to help provide insight as to what businesses may be struggling with when facing opioid addiction.

We’ve offered a free screening for metric opioid use report as a public service to local communities in Washington and Oregon, in which the confidential data will not only provide insight to local businesses about how this growing epidemic might be impacting their employees but also provides a pathway to addressing the crisis head-on.

For the sake of the workforce, the economy and—most importantly—our collective health, all relevant organizations and businesses need to step up and provide much-needed support and education for businesses struggling—knowingly or unknowingly—with chronic opioid use. 

John Robinson, M.D., is the chief medical officer at First Choice Health.