Industry Voices—When it comes to the opioid crisis, quality information and insights are needed

Doctor with opioids
Prominent names like Cigna, Aetna, UnitedHealthcare and Blue Cross Blue Shield have followed up on public commitments to combat the crisis and have done meaningful work to research and remedy the growing issue. (Getty/stevanovicigor)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 130 people die every day from an opioid overdose.

As shocking as that number might seem, the scale of the crisis becomes even more apparent once we take a step back. In 2018 alone, 47,590 deaths can be attributed to an opioid overdose. And that’s just the tragic tip of a much larger iceberg. Because as recently as 2017, 1.7 million people had substance use disorders connected to prescription opioids.

Unsurprisingly, the depth and duration of the opioid crisis has prompted healthcare providers and insurers alike to search for ways they can help reverse these troubling trends.

For its part, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has emphasized the importance of promoting “healthy, evidence-based ways of managing pain” and has resolved to find ways to “help providers and patients make responsible choices.”

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Prominent names like Cigna, Aetna, UnitedHealthcare and Blue Cross Blue Shield have followed up on public commitments to combat the crisis and have done meaningful work to research and remedy the growing issue.

But working to identify possible solutions is just the first step.

Making meaningful progress toward the goal of reducing opioid addictions and negative health outcomes is much more difficult. The speed with which the crisis emerged, and the complex network of factors contributing to its spread, means that progress will likely require a concerted effort on the part of many.

There is no silver bullet. And any substantive solution will necessarily be multifactorial in nature. Health networks and insurance companies must overcome the challenging structural dynamic of opioids being popular, relatively inexpensive and effective—while alternative pain treatments may be more obscure, initially more costly, and have less certain outcomes.

What is needed is more information: high-quality data about how patients and providers view and use these medications, what alternatives may be available, and what steps doctors and insurers can take to help do their part to address the crisis.

A nationwide independent research study, Partnering for a Healthier America, took an important step in that direction recently. The study examined consumer priorities and preferences for pain treatment, exploring the viability of potential alternatives for those living with chronic pain and/or using opioid prescriptions.

The study provided the following key takeaways:

Consumers perceive opioid addiction to be a significant problem

The study found 58% of U.S. adults consider opioid addiction to be an extremely significant problem. Perhaps less intuitively, 63% of those polled indicated that they expect the healthcare system to be involved in fixing this problem.

RELATED: Task force calls for ‘individualized, patient-centered approach’ to pain management 

Patients are open to alternatives

Despite the popularity of opioid medications, the study found that most people are likely to try non-prescription alternatives—provided those alternative solutions offer comparable pain relief as opioid medications. Many (a surprising 2/3 of respondents) would even consider an alternative that is less effective, suggesting a broader openness to alternative pain reduction methods.

Insurance companies wield real influence

While doctors’ influence over their patients’ decision-making is well-documented, this study found that insurance companies can have as much influence as doctors when it comes to patients considering non-prescription treatment alternatives.

Cost and coverage are key drivers

The study revealed that the most significant factors impacting a patient’s decision to try new treatment options are cost and insurance coverage. In other words: physical side effects are second to financial considerations.

Doctors should be communicating differently

The study concluded that doctors should be having more conversations with patients about non-prescription alternatives for pain reduction. Over half (58%) of respondents indicated they have not discussed non-prescription alternatives with their providers.

Covering up

Finally, the study suggests that insurance companies should work to make sure that coverage is available for effective non-opioid options for pain management. In addition to reviewing coverage, they should consider revising messaging they send regarding alternatives to both patients and providers.

Given the relative lack of timely and patient-facing information surrounding these issues, studies like Partnering for a Healthier America are an important step in delivering the kind of quality data that can help lead to meaningful solutions.

The better understanding healthcare and insurance professionals have around these issues—especially consumers’ preferences, attitudes and behaviors around pain management—the more likely they are to be able to craft effective solutions to a tragic and ongoing crisis.

Katy Palmer is managing director of the Health division at Escalent.