U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy sent a letter to more than 2.3 million physicians requesting help to combat the ongoing opioid epidemic. In the letter, he outlined how the epidemic began, the role doctors have played and how health care providers can be part of the solution.
It’s the first time a surgeon general has sent a letter directly to the country’s health care professionals requesting support to address a public health crisis, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“This is one of our greatest public health threats, and it’s one that we need to respond to with speed and urgency,” Murthy said on CBS This Morning.
The letter urged health care providers to pledge to:
In the letter, Murthy wrote that the opioid epidemic began with increased pressure on doctors to aggressively treat pain in the 1990s, which led to a drastic increase in opioid prescriptions. It was exacerbated by pharmaceutical companies that heavily marketed opioids to doctors, sometimes inaccurately. As a result, deaths from opioid overdoses quadrupled from 1999 to 2014.
Murthy doesn’t want to point fingers at anyone, though.
“We have a tendency in this country to look to blame first without thinking about how to constructively bring people together to be part of the solution,” Murthy said. “This is our opportunity to look at how to bring people together around the country.”
The letter was accompanied by a pocket card that outlines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s opioid prescribing guidelines.
One of the surgeon general’s primary goals, and one of his most difficult challenges, is to change the way Americans think about addiction.
“For far too long addiction has carried too much stigma with it,” Murthy said. “It’s been looked at as a moral failing, as a character flaw. That’s not true. Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. We have to treat it with the same urgency, the same scale, the same compassion that we would any other illness.”
Murthy has been touring the country to visit communities affected by the opioid epidemic. He’s spoken with health care providers, local leaders and individuals who have recovered from opioid addiction.
The Turn the Tide Tour began on April 5 at a drug rehab facility in Baltimore, Maryland. There, Murthy praised the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland for taking proactive steps to address opioid addiction and to provide comprehensive treatment.
But Murthy emphasized that there was still a lot of work to be done in Maryland and other parts of the country.
“There are many communities across the country where people don’t want treatment centers,” Murthy told the Baltimore Sun in April. “Where they feel that these kind of centers bring bad people in their community. In addition to investment money, we need to help people understand the importance of these centers and shift how people think about addiction.”
The surgeon general has visited 11 communities this summer.
In Seattle, Washington, Murthy visited the Seattle Police Department where he learned about police efforts to combat addiction by equipping officers with naloxone, a medication that treats the effects of an opioid overdose.
At his latest stop at the Saint Barnabas Medical Center near Newark, New Jersey, Murthy told a standing-room-only audience that medical school trained him to believe opioids weren’t addictive when they were used to treat pain.
The surgeon general wants every doctor to be able to recognize and diagnose a substance use disorder. He told CBS Morning News that he believes health care providers will rise to the challenge.
“I’ve found clinicians are eager to help,” Murthy said. “We want them to be a part of the solution.”