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There's a better way to prescribe painkillers. Photograph by Roberto Machado Noa—LightRocket via Getty Images

How Digital Health Could Help End the Opioid Addiction Crisis

Mar 20, 2017

There's a health tech tool that has the potential to staunch the scourge of opioid addiction and overdoses in America. The trouble is, doctors aren't using it.

So says Dr. Atul Gawande, revered surgeon, health care thinker, and journalist, in a new article published in the medical journal Annals of Surgery. Gawande argues that widespread adoption of electronic prescriptions—as opposed to the old-school, hand-written variety still used by so many medical providers —for certain painkillers could make a serious dent in opioid abuse and go a long toward protecting Americans who might fall prey to addictive drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin.

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Gawande's commentary focuses on surgeons given his own medical background (and the fact that patients who have had surgery are among the most likely to be prescribed opioids). "As a profession that inflicts pain as a necessary part of the care we provide, we have a responsibility to treat our patients’ pain effectively and appropriately. But we also have a clear responsibility to help stem the tide of drug overdose deaths," he writes.

So just how could a system of digital prescriptions work toward that end? For a number of reasons, as Gawande explains. This system of prescribing could "prevent duplicate and forged prescriptions by using 2-factor authentication; reduce dosing errors; cross-reference prescription monitoring program databases; and simplify the prescription process for doctors and patients." Furthermore, "electronic prescribing would make it far easier for surgeons to write smaller prescriptions that meet the needs of 80% of patients, or even 50%, knowing they could remotely order an additional supply if a patient needed it."

The latter part is especially critical given the high, and potentially unnecessary, volume of pills prescribed to patients who may not actually need all of them because of the hassles associated with obtaining a followup, hand-written prescription.

But just 8% of practicing physicians utilize these sort digital models - even though the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) issued rules allowing prescriptions of controlled substances in 2010. And in a time when government health agencies have been ramping up their efforts to control an opioid crisis which is now killing tens of thousands of Americans each year, Gawande argues that it's time for doctors to catch up with the technology.

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