LAWRENCEVILLE -- It's been called an epidemic, and federal data suggests deaths from addictive painkillers are up for an 11th straight year.
Coupled with that information, as well as local anecdotal reports, Gwinnett Medical Center officials and doctors have established a policy to deal with addictive painkiller prescriptions. Dr. Eric Goldklang, an emergency department physician at GMC, said some painkillers are more dangerous than cocaine and heroin.
The new policy, which does not apply to cancer patients, was established last month and followed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said Oxycontin and Vicodin were the main culprits. The policy divided acute pain and chronic pain, which Goldklang said is difficult to diagnose in an ER because it's likely a complex issue such as ongoing back pain.
"Traditionally, there's a big push to treat a patient's pain," Goldklang said. "We want to make people feel better, and experts in the community are starting to recognize we may be too far to one extreme. Maybe doing more harm than good by overprescribing pain medication."
The CDC reported that medicines, mostly prescription drugs, were involved in nearly 60 percent of overdose deaths in 2010, which overshadowed deaths from illicit narcotics.
A large goup of bipartisan Washington lawmakers are working on a Safe Prescribing Act of 2013, which would reclassify the painkillers as Schedule II drugs instead of Schedule III.
The policy means an ER doctor would not prescribe a Schedule II medication, but instead refer a patient to an appropriate specialist, if they couldn't identify the source of pain. That would follow a comprehensive evaluation, including a blood test and X-rays, Goldklang said.
The policy requires a patient to produce positive identification to receive a prescription for a controlled substance, so a drug doesn't fall into the wrong hands.
Goldklang said doctors are partially at fault because they may not realize how addictive these drugs can be, especially if they aren't familiar with a patient or their medical history. That's why ER doctors prescribe only three days worth of medication if a patient can't get in touch with their primary care doctor.
Pain is subjective, Goldklang said, and it's difficult to diagnosis because each person has a different personality, biological makeup and tolerance level.
Since the policy was established in late February, Goldklang said he's already noticed a change, as GMC has had fewer visits to the emergency room department. Word has also spread around the community.
Goldklang said a colleague at another hospital said a patient visited that hospital because that person knew about the new GMC policy.
"It's obviously a major problem and we wanted to address it," Goldklang said. "It is a collaborative approach to what we're doing before. It's better for the community, a more healthy path for the community."