Amid an ongoing crackdown on overprescribing doctors in Appalachia announced in October, patient advocates have been increasingly concerned for pain patients and those abusing prescription drugs. Being suddenly cut off from medications they depend on can be dangerous. Patients could become so desperate from withdrawal symptoms that they may resort to street drugs and could overdose.
But this time, in Tennessee, the health department is working to connect people who need pain treatment to legitimate pain clinics. And the substance abuse department began plastering messages online just as the indictments were unsealed, giving patients a hotline to call. Overdose prevention specialists have been deployed to train families on how to use reversal drugs like Narcan. They’ve also been taping up flyers on shuttered clinic doors.
Suzanne Angel is a state-funded outreach nurse in the area who is helping contact patients in the wake of the crackdown. She has been warning local hospital and emergency responders to be on alert for patients who may act out of desperation to find addictive narcotics or who may even be suicidal. This month, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledged the risk of serious harm for patients who are abruptly taken off opioids and issued new guidance to prescribers for how to safely taper patients off high dosages of opioids.
“I’m sure that they feel depression, despair, maybe anger and fear about ‘Who is going to take care of me?’ and ‘Is there going to be any support or services out there for me?’” Angel said. “I don’t want them to feel alone.”
Angel said there are now more alternatives to opioids, and it’s possible patients could find another pain clinic.
Because of the current legal focus on opioids, it can be much harder to obtain higher-dosage pills. And among the thousands of patients getting their medication through questionable providers, many have legitimate needs.