Answer the Call to Tackle Addiction

The surgeon general’s recent report is a much-needed call to arms around a public health crisis.

On Nov. 17, Dr. Vivek Murthy, a vice admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and U.S. surgeon general, issued a timely and much-needed report on what has become a public health crisis and menace in this country – namely, misuse and addiction to legal and illegal psychoactive drugs.

In the report preface, Murthy remarks that before starting his current job he stopped by the hospital where he had practiced. It was the nurses who said to him, he writes, “please do something about the addiction crisis in America.” He knew they were right, and he took their wise counsel.

Why are they right? Substance use disorders, where a person is functionally impaired and often physically dependent on a drug, affect nearly 21 million Americans annually – the same number of people who have diabetes and 150 percent of those with a cancer diagnosis, of any type.

In 2015, about 67 million people reported binge drinking in the past month, and 48 million were using illegal drugs or misusing prescribed drugs. In the past year, 12.5 million Americans reported misusing prescription pain relievers. In 2014, 47,055 people died from a drug overdose, with more than half of those using an opioid (like OxyContin, Percodan, Vicodin, methadone and heroin).

The numbers chill the mind, and yet with the widespread use, abuse and potentially deadly consequences, only 1 in 10 of those with a substance use disorder obtain any treatment. The nurses to whom Murthy spoke were surely seeing the consequences of drug misuse in their emergency rooms, clinics and inpatient units. They also were likely seeing the consequences among their family, friends and co-workers. (Health professionals are prone to misuse alcohol and drugs.)

What distinguishes the surgeon general’s report is its call for a long overdue shift in alcohol and drug policy – away from a criminal justice approach to a clinical or public health approach. What also distinguishes every cover note and chapter is a spirit of hope, that substance use can be prevented, detected early, effectively treated and its manifold adverse impacts mitigated.

To start, the surgeon general urges that we begin by “improving public awareness of substance misuse and related problems.” Negative attitudes, critical judgments and moral invective towards people with addiction not only interfere with delivering good care they deter people who need services from getting them.

But the report also makes clear that there is no single solution or path, nor should we expect one with problems this broad and deep. The heart of the report then, chapter by chapter, speaks to comprehensive policy action: prevention, early intervention, ongoing treatment, so-called wellness activities, identifying and reaching out to high-risk populations and supporting research efforts.

Central to the report is that we must integrate health care services with substance use treatment: not by referral from one to the other but by embedding screening and basic forms of treatment into primary care and family practice. We screen for hypertension, lipids, diabetes and much more; why aren’t we screening for problem alcohol and drug use where these problems are most likely to appear? Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral for Treatment, or SBIRT, is perhaps the best-known and most effective means of extending substance screening and management into the general health system.

Of course, all these efforts must be financed. A powerful argument can be made that it costs more to not treat these conditions than to treat them. Substance use disorders cost the U.S. more than $400 billion every year on health care expenses, criminal justice costs, social welfare consequences and lost workplace productivity. However, our health, social welfare and criminal justice systems are simply too siloed, (separated) and we pay the human and financial price of not reaching across the ersatz boundaries of government and community agencies.

Still, some laws are making inroads to improve care. The Affordable Care Act requires treatment for substance use disorders to be an “essential benefit,” no different from any other illness. The 2008 Federal Parity Act, now finally with regulations, also requires insurers to not discriminate against people with addictions. The policy and legislative pillars are there, and we need to keep using them.

The surgeon general ends his report with a vision for the future. He is deeply sanguine that we can disrupt the addiction epidemic that has seized our country. The path is a public health one, as I have illustrated above, but the report talks also of what individuals and families can do: reach out to those we see in trouble, withhold judgment, support those in recovery, and, for parents, talk to your child about alcohol and drugs. “Making [these changes] will require a major cultural shift in the way Americans think about, talk about, look at, and act toward people with substance use disorder,” the report reads. “For example, cancer and HIV used to be surrounded by fear and judgment, but they are now regarded by most Americans as medical conditions like many others.”

We owe a great thanks to the surgeon general and the many experts and advocates who put together this call for how we can respond to what is now a public health crisis. We can do that. It will be hard, but the alternative of not taking collective action will be far harder to bear.


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