Have you ever wondered how this prescription drug abuse epidemic spiraled out of control? How did we let this happen? Who are the major stackholders? These powerful drugs were developed with a real noble purpose, but soon cycled out of control. Was it our own doing? Similar to cigarette companies, pharmaceutical executives have become significantly rich at the expense of bringing incredible harm to all of us. This is our terrible reality across all industries - greed always results in harming everyone involved. Physicians have been screaming about the dangers of these medications, but lawmakers continued to ignore them Why do we do this? Ignore the scientific community for the mighty dollar. Whether it be the approaching epidemic, rise of harmful medications or technologies, or gun control - the concern for financial profits always win.
The commercial manufacturer of morphine started out in Germany in 1827. In fact, morphine was the painkiller of choice during the American Civil War. Interestingly, the doctor who invented Coca Cola formula had developed a morphine addiction during the Civil War and in their attempts to solve this issue, cocaine was sought. The new drink had cocaine mixed into it and sold to a pharmacy in Atlanta. During that time, this was perfectly legal.
Heroin was created by Bayer Company in Germany in 1898. It's sole purpose was to be a remedy to the morphine addiction. Legislation, like The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and Harrison Narcotic Tax Act in 1914, brought these addictive substances under the control of physicians; preventing casual distribution of these products.
The current problem:
Factors that contributed to such growth:
The number of prescriptions has increased from 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013. The United States is the biggest consumer globally.
What does it mean for the pharmaceutical companies?
It means more than $35 billion in sales since releasing medications like OxyContin. Annual revenues are about $3 billion for pharmaceutical companies selling prescription drugs.
So, what does all this mean?
Well, let's see...
A medication or family of medications whose sole purpose was to help the soldiers during war starts to be sold unregulated to people around the world. Then as addiction starts to develop and people take notice, regulations are made to help control its spread, but either inadvertently or not, products like cocaine and heroin are used to "remedy" the situation. This leads to more addiction.
Meanwhile, the US health system was undergoing major changes. In attempts to control costs in the 1960s-1990s major developments in public and private health plans were developed. Not too surprisingly, as the managed care organizations were attempting to control costs, US health expenditures started to rise, while reimbursement started to fall. Pharmaceutical companies started to market heavily and capitalized on a health care system that was reducing clinic visit times to an average 7-10 minutes, which led to more written prescriptions.
Sound familiar? Our country has a HUGE antibiotic resistance problem where antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily. The American public doesn't see the "super bugs" which claim many American lives where these bugs are resistant to ALL available antibiotics.
Pharmaceutical companies do not invest in making more antibiotics as there is more money to be made in drugs that are taken for a long time, instead of the 5-7 days regimens that are usually prescribed for antibiotics.
But, we digress.
So what does the US government do to fight this epidemic? Spend more money where it doesn't matter! The President signed legislation that authorizes $181 million a year for new programs to train emergency personnel in administering drugs to reverse opiod overdoses and help communities purchase those drugs, as well as develop treatment and overdose programs.
This means that pharmaceutical companies have more buyers for medications like Narcan and other products. Which leads to more profits! These treatment centers will be overwhelmed with the large demand as the public now has available "quick reversal" agents. This sends the wrong message and does NOT get to the root of the problem. Those of us who have taken care of overdose patients know that the problem does not cost so much money, development of more "reversal" agents, nor does it require capital investment to create "treatment facilities." The solution is simple: Establish a human connection involving time to talk, engage, motivate, build strong relationships, and bring people together.
What does this solution look like more specifically?
All physicians, including specialists, are demanding better primary care. Longer visits allow for conversation and developing a plan that may include various pain control options outside of prescription medications.
The primary care setting is the place where opioid management should take place. Why not? The primary care physician is the leader of their care; the quarterback who is most likely or should be managing multiple health issues. They are the ones who spend time with the family, loved ones, might even have done a few house calls, knows what barriers exist to better health, and is the one making referrals or partnerships to bring more solutions to their delivery of care.
This is what true primary care looks like. Not a place to get a referral to a pain specialist or some methadone clinic. Why do we accept such nonsense? Let the primary care doctor to what they are trained to do. The health system must support and allow this interaction to happen because this small investment will prevent huge costs in the future. Psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, social work, and others might need to be involved. More importantly, there cannot be a delay in seeing each of these specialists and there needs to be total - 24/7 - contact between physician and patient to prevent "loss to follow up."
This solution is cheaper, preserves human dignity, and most importantly it gets to the root of the issue - whether it be economic stress, poor family interactions or challenges, depression or other mental illness, or poor medical management of pain.
I am optimistic that the American people will speak out and share their personal experiences with a direct primary care practice. Soon, the current momentum that is already motivating public and private insurance companies offering "total health " plans that has a direct care flavor or large health systems offering more ways for patients to connect with them, will lead to national support for direct care. The challenge will be for physicians to prevent corporate greed getting in the way of our patient care.
To a healthier America,
February 1, 2015 was the day I broke free from the insurance run health care system. After several years of being a staff physician at a large health system, medical directorship, running research studies, writing articles, being a pharmaceutical consultant for 2 large companies, I realized I cannot change this system from within. Corporate greed was too great for a young physician to fight.
Each year I practiced medicine, I met another hard working American who waived his/her plastic insurance card, yet could not receive accessible or affordable primary care. I have met many other hard working Americans who couldn't get coverage regardless of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
The final story I could tolerate came when I met a 35 year old female who suffered a massive stroke and had to have her skull drilled to relieve the growing pressure from a massive brain hemorrhage.
I took over her care after she had been moved from the ICU to the floor. My job was to figure out why she had the stroke, prevent the next stroke, and aggressively pursue rehab. I had triaged her as one of my last patients to see as she was reportedly stable.
I knocked on the door and found a young brown haired caucasian female laying quietly in a dark room, alone. Her hair was disheveled as she had staples on one side of her scalp with part of her head shaved, allowing exposure to her staples. She looked exhausted. Unlike the other rooms, there were no flowers, no cards, no "Get Well" balloons. It was just her, a beeping IV pump, and a computer next to her bed. The guest couch and chairs sat empty in the corner of the room. The 42 inch TV was turned off. The large window provided some light as it penetrated the dark window and the window shade. Upon my entrance, she turned to look at me with sad eyes and managed to smile half way.
I pulled up a chair next to her bed to listen to her story as I did with every patient. She readjusted herself, which was challenging as her entire right side was still weak.
You see, she was a young 35 year old single mom who was working 3 part-time jobs, because her employers did not want to offer a full time job as that would require them to offer her health insurance under the current laws. So, she did not have insurance because of this. Her story began with a visit to an urgent care center where she was told she had high blood pressure and she was given a medication to help control her blood pressure. She didn't understand what high blood pressure would mean if it is not controlled. After taking the medication for a few days, she simply stopped taking it because to her it was all numbers and certainly didn't make her feel any "better." Besides, she was a young 35 year old and so how bad could it be?
In reviewing her records, it seems she had presented to the ER with a blood pressure of 220/120. Likely, her blood pressure was the reason for her stroke and head bleed. The medication she was on for high blood pressure is $4. Needless to say, I can get this medication for my patients now for $0.87 for a month supply.
As her story continued to unravel, I started to stoop lower and lower in my chair. My mind started to race with anger. How can she be so abandoned? Why did no one tell her about the importance of blood pressure? Where was the follow up visit? How is this fair? She is a contributing American citizen to our economy, yet we abandon her?
To put all this in perspective, here she is as an uninsured patient with an ICU stay of 5 days, surgical drainage of blood, multiple imaging studies and labs, she couldn't move her entire right side and so will need 6-8 weeks of rehab. One of her jobs was being a waitress. There is no way she could return to this line of work. In essence, we have effectively bankrupted a young, sweet, innocent, 35 year old single mom.
After she had completed her story, teary eyed, and by now I was almost laying in my chair, I straightened myself and leaned forward towards her. I said,"ma'am, I am so sorry for all this. We have failed you. I as a representative of the American health care system have failed you. For that, I am sorry."
I went on to explain how important blood pressure is to control and how we can prevent another stroke. I left that room with only one thought in mind...NEVER AGAIN.
Never again would I allow myself to be in that chair hearing a story like that from any of my patients. My mind was made up to offer the best primary care I can, regardless of insurance status.
Many people do not hear the stories that we as physicians hear. Yes, you pay for insurance premiums, but for primary care, that insurance card likely is not getting you the best care. Think about it. Some pay $25 to over $100 in copay per visit for what? A 10-15 minute visit that feels rushed or is not comprehensive. Or be sent to a specialist, procedure, imaging study, or be prescribed pills when in reality you probably didn't need it. These decisions are made simply because there is no time to get to the root of the problem.
The follow up is the most important component of primary care. Start a gameplan and then you need to follow up maybe in a week or 2 weeks. But eliminate the copays that people have to pay to make the follow up more feasible. This is where direct care makes sense and saves money.
The young and healthy individuals also save money and gain value in a direct care model. Simply put, casting, medications, EKG, suturing is FREE or at a minimal cost in a direct care practice. Time and money is saved. But, think about the value. That young and healthy individual is probably going through some emotional roller coasters. What are their aspirations? How strong is their social network and who are they? Who do they spend time with and how are they dealing with any stressors they may have? Are they exercising and eating healthy? If they do exercise, then are they doing it safely? Do they practice safe sex? Where are they planning to travel? Are they overweight? Do they have family history of diabetes or heart disease that predisposes them to these conditions?
These questions are so important that essentially a life can be saved by simply talking to them. These young adults are connected to their physician by a simple text or video chat under a direct care model. How neat is that?
This is the value of direct care with or without health insurance. Take the time to understand what you are paying for when purchasing a health insurance plan. Our patients with Medicare and supplement insurance will say the value of access, coordination of care, and availability overwhelms the minimal monthly cost.
Health insurance and direct care together make a phenomenal resource for all Americans to live well. Quality of life will be enhanced. Our health expenditures will go down. Taxes will be reduced and employers will be able to retain their talented workforce. Increase in direct care practices will solve the primary care shortage, lead to more young physicians embracing private practice to revive the practice of medicine, technology will be used to bring accessible health care into the home, and the American people will be empowered to navigate the health care system with more confidence. Together, we will achieve a healthier America.
Give a direct primary care practice some consideration. Visit iwantdirectcare.com to learn where the nearest direct care practice is for you.
Welcome to the new US Health Care System!
"He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all."