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The cause of the current opioid crisis has roots not only in the pharmaceuticals industry of the 1990s, which marketed strong painkillers as a safe and effective way to manage pain, but also in doctors’ offices, when the profession began accepting pain as a vital sign along with objective measures such as blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature.
The workers compensation industry has been a big driver, experts say. In California, for example, opioids represent 27% of all drugs prescribed to injured workers, according to the Oakland-based California Workers’ Compensation Institute.
“The workers comp industry and society in general since the 1990s has been trained to think of opioids as a first-line remedy for pain,” said Mark Pew, senior vice president at Prium, a Duluth, Georgia-based medical cost management firm. “The pendulum is now swinging the other way.”
Today opioids are documented to be highly addictive with a host of side effects that had been minimized in earlier marketing — several municipalities and individuals have filed lawsuits against the manufacturers and marketers of several opioids they claim spurred the crisis.
“It’s only fair to say that physicians and pharmacists were duped by the pharmaceutical industry” marketing opioids as being nonaddictive, said Phil Walls, Tampa, Florida-based chief clinical officer for pharmacy benefit manager Matrix Healthcare Services Inc., which does business as myMatrixx.
The steady march away from opioid prescribing in workers compensation will continue into 2017, according to industry experts who call this ongoing shift in treating pain for injured workers a necessary, but complicated journey for all parties involved.