In 2016, more than 1,400 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses. Sadly, many of these deaths could have been prevented with an overdose reversal drug: naloxone.
As an emergency physician, I witness firsthand the tight grip prescription opioids and illicit drugs like heroin have on our communities. Men and women of all ages and backgrounds come through our doors, unable to break the cycle of addiction.
People often ask me how we can put an end to Kentucky’s opioid epidemic. I believe it starts with keeping patients alive, putting them on the path to treatment and hopefully, recovery.
Expanding access to naloxone is a critical part of the solution. Naloxone is a safe, easy-to-use, and proven method of reversing the effects of heroin and other opioids. In the critical moments after an overdose, administering naloxone is one of the best ways to reverse the effects of opioid overdose. This initial, in-the-field treatment is often what gives those of us in the emergency room an opportunity to further help someone suffering from a substance use disorder.
One way to protect patients from overdosing is to “co-prescribe” naloxone when they’re prescribed an opioid dosage that the CDC considers high-risk. In one study, patients who received a naloxone co-prescription had 47 percent fewer opioid-related emergency department visits per month in the 6 months after receipt, and 63 percent fewer visits after one year compared with patients who did not receive naloxone.
Out in the field, police officers and first responders also need to be properly equipped with naloxone. Law enforcement officers have already saved many lives by administering naloxone, but as the opioid epidemic rages on, demand is growing. When an overdose occurs, there is no time to spare, so we must make sure this overdose-reversing tool is available.
With deadly drugs like fentanyl now so prevalent on the streets, naloxone can also be the difference between life and death for the very officers trying to protect us. Fentanyl can be deadly even through inadvertent contact, causing officers to overdose—yet another reason for equipping them with overdose-reversing tools.
As the federal government decides how to allocate funds to address the opioid crisis, it should set an example by putting resources toward increasing access to naloxone for both the patients and the law enforcement officers trying to protect them.
Naloxone alone will not solve our opioid epidemic. It certainly won’t bring back the thousands of Kentuckians we lost last year. But it can ensure that opioid users can receive help when they need it most – potentially enabling them to fight their addiction and get on the path to recovery. Let’s get it into the hands of those who need it.
Robert Couch, MD, is a board-certified emergency physician in Louisville who currently serves as Secretary/Treasurer of the Kentucky Medical Association, as well as a board member of The Healing Place.