The Power of a Simple Letter In the Opioid Epidemic

August 13, 2018, 7:40 PM UTC

In Fourtune‘s Brainstorm Health Daily newsletter, we home in on the latest technological innovations in medicine—the stuff of sci-fi, like gene editing, implantable medicines, digital apps that can be used to treat disease, and other, well, awesome stuff of that ilk.

But sometimes, in the midst of all the coolness, it’s possible to gloss over the old-school, low-tech things that can make a practical difference in public health and the culture of medicine itself—including in as pervasive and challenging a scourge as the opioid addiction and overdose epidemic.

Case in point: A new study from researchers and doctors at USC, the Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, and the Department of the Medical Examiner-Coroner of Los Angeles County found that the most basic of techniques—a good, old-fashioned letter—can make a dent in the way that physicians prescribe addictive opioids.

“A simple letter, supportive in tone, to inform clinicians of a scheduled drug harm to their patient resulted in fewer subsequent opioids dispensed by those clinicians,” wrote the study authors, adding that, so far, “traditional state regulatory approaches to limiting opioid prescribing have not achieved great success.”

Admittedly, the overall effect of these letters, highly personal missives from the families of opioid victims, were modest. But by no means were they negligible, according to the study. In fact, doctors informed of patient deaths through these personal communications were 7% less likely to prescribe opioids for new patients, and less likely to prescribe high-dose opioid painkillers, over the course of the next three months compared to those who didn’t.

It may not sound like much, but in the midst of a scourge claiming tens of thousands of lives every year, the public health effect isn’t something to be easily brushed aside.

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