Drug overdose deaths in the elderly have jump to the sky in recent years, jumping 147% over the past decade – the highest increase of any age group in the country. Among people 65 and older, men are twice as likely as women to overdose, and black Americans are more than 10 percent more likely than other minority groups. Given that the elderly are more vulnerable to drug overdose, access to non-drug alternatives for pain management is particularly important. Reducing opioid use starts with changing our approach to managing chronic pain and increasing access to safe, effective, non-addictive treatment options.
Congress recognizes the need for new approaches to combat opiate abuse and drug addiction. In late May, the Senate passed a Resolution urging Congress to offer bipartisan solutions to address the substance use disorder needs of older adults, noting that our seniors are more susceptible to substance use disorder for several reasons. Last year, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held rumor where members emphasized the need to better promote non-addictive treatments and asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prioritize non-addictive alternatives for pain management.
While this is a change in the right direction, policymakers must also consider the value of complementary and integrative health care (CIH) for older adults and chronic pain sufferers to reduce opiate use and addiction. When CIH providers are used to manage pain from the start, research shows that opioid prescriptions plummet, which is a much smarter preventative strategy than managing addiction on the back end. The American College of Physicians It is highly recommended to start non-pharmacological treatment for both acute and chronic low back pain. Let’s follow the evidence and promote non-pharmacological approaches to pain management as first-line treatment.
CIH providers, including chiropractors, acupuncturists and massage therapists, provide effective and safe pain management. Yet they are too often ignored by Congress and the health care system, which tends to default to pharmacological treatment as the first step in reducing pain. Patients are increasingly using complementary and integrative therapies and expanding access to these care options, giving older adults more choice and control over their health management.
However, significant barriers – in addition to a lack of political will – prevent access to integrative care options and providers. Health system economics limit access and fail to incentivize patient choice of high-value CIH services. Rather, they favor prescribing pharmacologic approaches—including opioids—that do not reflect best practices for chronic pain management such as those recommended by American College of Physicians, The Joint Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Increasing access and reducing financial barriers to non-pharmacological treatments is critical to ensuring that high-value care is incentivized and health care delivery reflects current best practices. Treating pain and related conditions with non-pharmacological options first has the potential to reduce drug addictions, accidental overdoses and deaths, and other serious adverse effects, while preventing relapse in those struggling with addiction who may continue to suffer from pain associated with acute injuries.
Legislative measures to combat opioid abuse and drug addiction must be accompanied by policies that provide viable treatment alternatives for older adults. To do this, we must recognize the role of CIH in preventive care and ensure that policies provide access to a full range of health professionals. Congress must prioritize access to CIH over more invasive and addictive treatments to change the trajectory of our deadly opioid epidemic. By emphasizing the benefits of integrative health care to better support the creation of lifelong health, Congress can reform our nation’s approach to chronic pain management.
Health science education educates the next generation of healthcare professionals to prioritize effective, non-pharmacological treatments for pain management, preparing the future workforce for evidence-based practice. It’s time for Congress to follow suit – Congress must advocate for and prioritize policies that include complementary and integrative health care.
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