RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The U.S. surgeon general is asking every physician in the country to help fight what he calls a health crisis facing America – the opioid epidemic.
And medical schools across the country, including here North Carolina, are stepping up to the challenge.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, doctors write about 249 million prescriptions for pain killers every year.
That’s enough for every adult in the country to have a bottle of pills.
“That’s human nature to want a quick fix. Take a pill, feel better,” explained Dr. Julie Byerley, a pediatrician and the vice dean for education at UNC’s School of Medicine.
Nathaniel Butorovich said his battle with addiction started with a skateboarding injury.
He said he had two plates and two screws inserted into his ankle during surgery to fix his broken ankle.
Butorovich was prescribed pain pills following that surgery.
“I knew pain pills were relatively addictive but I didn’t think they would affect me,” said Butorovich.
He grew up in Wilmington, recently named by one study to be the worst city in America for opioid abuse.
“Not everyone gets addicted to pain pills, not everyone goes down a terrible road but majority of the time it happens to people that don’t think it’s going to happen,” Butorovich said, “It will take anybody down.”
He was given no shortage of “relief,” with no questions asked.
“I got like 300 pills,” said Butorovich.
A doctor prescribed him with two of the most commonly used pain pills – hydrocodone and percocet.
“It just kinda slowly progressed, it eventually moved to stronger pain pills and then eventually to heroin,” Butorovich said.
They are choices he made, but with more and more drugs being dispensed, he’s certainly not alone.
And the problem is spiraling out of control.
Just in North Carolina, the number of unintentional prescription drug deaths has exploded – up 687 percent in the past decade and half.
State records show there were 80 of those deaths in 1999 and 728 in 2014.
“Twenty years ago when I was in medical school, we were taught to treat pain generously with narcotics,” Byerley explained. “We were taught, and it turned out to be wrong, that narcotics used for pain, real pain, were not addictive. It turns out all narcotics are addictive.”
CBS North Carolina asked if doctors and prescribes have added to the problem.
“We have unfortunately, again because we thought that we were trying to treat pain compassionately we want to relieve that’s part of a doctor’s job, but by relieving pain you don’t want to cause more problems down the line,” Byerley said.
Just last month, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy sent a letter urging doctors to rethink how they help treat pain.
“I know solving this problem will not be easy. We often struggle to balance reducing our patients’ pain with increasing their risk of opioid addiction. But, as clinicians, we have the unique power to help end this epidemic. As cynical as times may seem, the public still looks to our profession for hope during difficult moments. This is one of those times,” the letter said.
The CDC has also created the first ever national standards for how doctors should be prescribing pain pills.
UNC’s medical school is making sure doctors of tomorrow share this mindset.
“We’ve made lots of changes to the curriculum lately. In fact, we’ve revamped the whole curriculum,” Byerley said.
It’s a big commitment that more than 60 med schools across the county have agreed to.
Beginning in fall 2016, those schools will require their students to take some form of prescriber education, in line with the newly released Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
“We are trying to teach our students to make sure that as they become doctors, they use those narcotics appropriately to help patients to relieve pain, but not to cause more problems,” Byerley explained.
The CDC estimates as many as one in four people receiving long-term opioid therapy will struggle with addiction.
But an addiction can be developed very quickly.
“For example, oral surgeons who take out wisdom teeth in adolescents,” Byerley explained, “That hurts! And many have come accustomed to just prescribing a bottle of percocet so that pain can be managed. Now, we’re training new oral surgeons to prescribe smaller numbers of that Percocet or maybe no narcotic at all so that that adolescent doesn’t inadvertently get addicted just getting his wisdom teeth out.”
People like Butorovich will tell you it happens.
“I think that’s a big thing I learned in recovery is humility,” explained Butorovich. “Learning what happens to actual people in addiction. Because they’re relatively good people and drugs just consume their life.”
Butorovich was able to get treatment and is now drug free and currently looking for a new job.
He hopes his story can inspire others to turn their lives around.
“Becoming addicted to narcotics is not a moral failing,” explained Byerley. “This is a biologic phenomenon. This happens. It happens to anyone.”
The country’s medical leaders are pushing now more than ever to get the public and physicians to help break the cycle.
“We want to help patients who are currently addicted to narcotics get the treatment they need, to get off those narcotics safely, and then we don’t want to cause anymore addiction through inappropriate prescribing by doctors,” said Byerley.
Prescription drug abuse can often lead to illegal drug use.
Heroin abuse is also skyrocketing in North Carolina.
Medical schools who have pledged to require their students to take some form of prescriber education, in line with the newly released Centers for Disease Control guidelines:
- A.T. Still University of Health Sciences, Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine
- A.T. Still University of Health Sciences, School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona
- Baylor College of Medicine
- Boston University School of Medicine
- Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine at New Mexico State University
- Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine of Midwestern University
- David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California – Los Angeles
- Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin
- East Carolina University Brody School of Medicine
- Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine – Auburn Campus
- Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine – Carolinas Campus
- Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine – Virginia Campus
- Georgia Campus – Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
- Hébert School of Medicine Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
- Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
- Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences College of Osteopathic Medicine
- Lincoln Memorial University DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine
- Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine
- Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine
- Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine
- Mercer University School of Medicine
- NYU School of Medicine
- Ohio State University College of Medicine
- Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine
- Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine
- Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine
- Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
- Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
- Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine
- Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine
- Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
- Saint Louis University School of Medicine
- State University of New York Upstate Medical University
- The Commonwealth Medical College
- The Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo
- Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine – New York
- Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine – California
- Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine – Nevada
- Tufts University School of Medicine
- Tulane University School of Medicine
- University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson
- University of California – Davis School of Medicine
- University of Central Florida College of Medicine
- University of Colorado School of Medicine
- University of Kansas Medical Center
- University of Louisville School of Medicine
- University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine
- University of North Carolina School of Medicine
- University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine
- University of Oklahoma College of Medicine
- University of Pikeville – Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine
- University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry
- University of Tennessee College of Medicine
- University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
- University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
- Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine
- West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine
- West Virginia University School of Medicine
- Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific
- Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific Northwest
- William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine