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U.S. Surgeon General Discusses Opioid Epidemic at UT Medical Center

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy met with doctors, lawmakers and a host of clinicians and other community leaders at The University of Tennessee Medical Center to discuss and seek solutions in the opioid abuse epidemic afflicting the nation, and hitting particularly hard in Tennessee.

According to Tennessee Department of Health records, at least 1,263 Tennesseans died of opioid overdoses in 2014. Knox County recorded 133 overdose deaths that year. Physicians, nurses and staff treat drug addicted patients of all ages, from senior citizens to infants born to drug addicted mothers. During his meetings on the Knoxville campus of the academic medical center, Dr. Murthy called for more action and greater education in the fight against the opioid crisis.

“Addiction is a chronic illness, not a moral failing or character flaw,” said Dr. Murthy. “We have to shift how we think about addiction because, until we do that, it’s going to be hard for us to end this opioid epidemic and get treatment to those who need it.”

Overdose deaths from prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control. From 1999 through 2014, more than 165,000 people died in the U.S. from overdoses involving prescription opioids. Methadone, Oxycodone and Hydrocodone were the most common drugs involved in prescription opioid overdose deaths during that timeframe. During his visit to the hospital, Dr. Murthy spoke with and heard from about 350 people with a strong interest in the topic.

“We’re honored the Surgeon General, the Tennessee Department of Health and the Board of Medical Examiners chose the medical center as the site to hold meaningful discussion about the critical community issue of opioid abuse and addiction,” said Joe Landsman, president and CEO of The University of Tennessee Medical Center. “This was a great opportunity for community leaders, legislators and healthcare providers to have an open and frank talk about prevention, treatment and education.”

Craig Towers, MD, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, is working to decrease opioid dependency in both pregnant women and their babies. Neonates born drug dependent suffer from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). Findings from a study recently completed by Towers, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, showed no adverse fetal outcomes when women were detoxed during pregnancy. Towers’ findings may offer an alternative to the long-term standard of care which suggests waiting to detox women until after the babies are born. The five-year observational study of more than 300 opiate-addicted pregnant women also included an intensive behavioral therapy component.

“In Tennessee alone, treatment for NAS babies cost the state Medicaid program more than $60 million last year,” Dr. Towers told Dr. Murthy and other members of a roundtable discussion. “If detox could help reduce the number of NAS cases, the state could possibly take those savings and fund addiction treatment programs for pregnant women.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the number of babies born with NAS in the U.S. grew five-fold between 2000 and 2012, with more than 21,000 infants suffering from the syndrome. As Surgeon General, finding innovative solutions to address the nation’s opioid epidemic is one of Dr. Murthy’s top priorities. He is currently touring numerous cities, discussing the topic with people from across the country in an effort to combat the situation.

Posted June 29, 2016


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