There’s no denying the impacts of the opioid epidemic in the U.S. Prescription opioids have witnessed a steady rise in addiction trends and lethal overdoses. With a shortage of prescriptions, this market has initiated recovering individuals to seek alternative substances such as heroin or fentanyl to meet their needs. This has created a devastating influx of opioid addiction, driving state and federal actors to intervene. In 2019, nearly 50,000 people in the United States died from opioid-involved overdoses.
Tackling the opioid epidemic requires support from multiple resources. Mental health treatment can be a welcoming addition towards addiction recovery, for the patients and healthcare providers. The distressing tug of war healthcare professionals experience can introduce devastating impacts. Individuals who suffer from chronic pain or abuse certain substances are more prone to abuse opioids.
The chances of developing an opioid use disorder depend on many factors, including the length of time a person is prescribed to take opioids for acute pain, and the length of time that people continue taking opioids (whether as prescribed or misused). 8-12% of people using opioids for chronic pain develop an opioid use disorder. The increase of injection-based opioids has led to an increase in infectious diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV.
The impact of the opioid epidemic has drawn out the financial toll for many years. In Illinois, opioids were involved in 46,802 (a rate of 14.6) overdose deaths in 2018 — nearly 70% of all overdose deaths. The global pandemic has influenced substance abuse trends, with 13% of Americans reporting an increase or starting substance use. This has led to increased demand for healthcare services such as mental health counseling and addiction treatment.
Despite their role in the system, healthcare workers tend to bear the brunt of the effects of these uncertain and unpredictable times. The psychological, emotional, and physical tolls of these obstacles can bring immense consequences. A term recognized as “second victim” details how physicians, nurses, or other healthcare providers suffer mental and emotional distress from being involved in a medical error. In this case, there was no “error”, just a series of circumstances. This can lead to burnout, irritability, post-secondary trauma, and feelings of guilt or shame.
Dr. Caitlyn McClure has outlined the effects healthcare workers face amidst the opioid epidemic in the US. Their recent publication aims to measure the psychological effects in addictions professionals with a client death by drug overdose. Certain health care workers within addiction treatment can be prone to exposure to opioids.
In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has published guidelines for protecting emergency responder personnel who may be occupationally exposed to fentanyl, including during pre-hospital patient care, law enforcement, investigation, evidence handling, and special operations and decontamination.
Employers should notify healthcare workers of potential exposure when it comes to treating patients. Nurses and other healthcare workers who provide treatment to opioid-related patients face risks from bodily fluids and contamination of clothing/belongings.
Considering the potency of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, it’s incredibly significant to preserve the risk of exposure from:
- Inhalation of powder, crystals, or aerosolized droplets
- Ingestion or oral exposure
- Skin contact and absorption
- Needlestick injuries
Proper training, screening protocols, correspondence, and updated health standards can help protect those most vital to this journey. Training for opioid responses can be met with other resources (i.e. counseling) to enrich conditions for healthcare workers. Those suffering from both ends of the opioid epidemic deserve quality care.