Surgeon General Launches Anti-Opioid Campaign

By Pat Anson, Editor

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, has partnered with two non-profit health organizations in an ambitious and unusual campaign against the abuse of prescription opioids.

Murthy is taking the unprecedented step of sending a letter to 2.3 million physicians and prescribers, asking them to take a pledge to “turn the tide” against opioid abuse. Included in the letter is a “pocket card” that summarizes guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

“Years from now, I want us to look back and know that, in the face of a crisis that threatened our nation, it was our profession that stepped up and led the way. I know we can succeed because health care is more than an occupation to us. It is a calling rooted in empathy, science, and service to humanity,” Murthy says in the letter.

The two-page pocket card generally follows the CDC guidelines, stating that opioids only provide short-term benefits for moderate to severe pain and that "scientific evidence is lacking" for opioids to treat chronic pain.

“In general, do not prescribe opioids as the first-line treatment for chronic pain,” the pocket card states.

The card also urges physicians to prescribe no more than a 3-day supply of opioids for acute pain and to “avoid” prescribing doses of more than 90 mg (morphine equivalent) a day. 

surgeon general vivek murthy, MD

surgeon general vivek murthy, MD

To take the pledge, physicians are asked to visit and promise to educate themselves about treating pain safely and effectively; to screen patients for “opioid use disorder” and provide them access to treatment; and to talk about addiction “as a chronic illness, not a moral failing.”  

Physicians are also asked to give their full names, zip code and an email address to “stay connected” with the Turn The Tide campaign. The website was created in partnership with Public Health Foundation Enterprises and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

“The Surgeon General realized that in order to raise awareness and reach people in all communities, he wanted to partner with non-profits that were in the public health space to help advance the messaging around the opioid crisis in the United States,” said Blayne Cutler, MD, president and CEO of Public Health Foundation Enterprises. 

“We thought it was a very important campaign because the data surrounding opioid addiction in this country has been very concerning and worsening over time. This is one of the few areas in public health where we see the number going in the wrong direction.”

No Mention of Fentanyl Crisis

Murthy's letter and the website focus exclusively on prescription opioids and don’t even mention opioid overdoses caused by heroin or the surge in illicit fentanyl deaths now sweeping the country, which the DEA has called an unprecedented crisis. Some states have reported over half of their overdoses are now caused by fentanyl.

In explaining the omission, Cutler said Murthy wanted to focus on how people are introduced to opioids and how they become addicted.

“He’s taking a broad look at how prescribers are thinking about opioids in the context of their patients and what can we do to make sure we effectively treat pain and also make sure we are doing no harm in that process. So it’s a tricky balance,” Cutler told Pain News Network.

“Blaming prescription opioid prescribing for all the overdoses is not going to help solve the problem,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “Of course every unintentional or accidental overdose is a tragedy beyond belief but so are the suicides by people who have been told they can no longer receive opioids for their pain.  

“Why do we ignore the people in pain? Most overdoses are not people recently prescribed an opioid. It is very harmful to send a message to providers that doesn't reflect the honest crisis that exists.” 

Webster says he receives an email nearly every day from a pain patient crying for help because a physician has already taken them off opioids or lowered their dose.

“Dr. Murthy will worsen this crisis with his letter,” Webster said in an email to PNN. “Abandonment is not humane. I know he is well intended but he obviously doesn't understand the crisis.”