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Employers can do a better job of educating employees on the dangers of opioid use, according to experts weighing in on a new survey that found 33% of American workers reported using pain relievers on a regular basis, with the majority of those on prescriptions drugs.
While the survey, released April 17 by the Oakland, California-based Integrated Benefits Institute, found that barely 5% of the 84,579 workers surveyed reported abuse of pain relievers or dependence, experts say the high number of those with prescriptions — more than 83% — is alarming.
“I think the magnitude was not something we anticipated, but we did anticipate that there would be more than a trivial number of people who would have some use of prescription medications,” said Brian Gifford, Oakland-based director of research and analytics for the independent research firm that helps companies link data with health programs to enhance productivity and business performance.
The firm’s board consists of members from 33 midsize and large companies, including Home Depot Inc., Johnson & Johnson Services Inc., Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Comcast Corp. and more. The goal of the study was to examine productivity and days missed from work due to prescription drug use among workers, yet “workplace safety was a part of the larger context” for the study, according to Mr. Gifford. The random, anonymous survey was conducted between 2015 and 2017, according to the report.
Researcher Erin Peterson, who works in the Integrated Benefit Institute’s Oakland office and authored the report, said the numbers show a workforce grappling with pain issues, and that productivity isn’t the only concern, with “problematic behaviors” such as addiction and dependence likely to follow.
Tom Woods, a substance-abuse expert and founder of Bethesda, Maryland-based Workforce Recovery Solutions LLC, said the numbers seemed too high, but that irresponsible and dangerous prescribing has been a major factor, as is the biological issue of dependence: when a person takes opioids, even in small doses, to avoid a withdrawal.
“In a nutshell, anyone taking opioids for a week up to 30 days will develop some sort of dependence,” he said
Patient education is key, he said. “We have to tell people that opiates are designed to get you through a short amount of time (of) pain that a Tylenol or an Advil or some other (over-the-counter drug) couldn’t manage … They are not supposed to be prescribed for a majority of cases.”
Avid use of painkillers among workers who are not disabled and in the workforce — 73.6% of those surveyed reported working full time — was “surprising,” said Scott Daniels, Philadelphia-based senior director of disability for Comcast, who oversees disability and other employee health issues for Comcast, NBCUniversal and Comcast Spectacor.
The data is a chance for industries to work together to educate both employers and employees on risk factors, said Mr. Daniels, who practiced disability law and workers compensation in New York prior to joining Comcast. “I think employers can have an impactful role” by encouraging workers to seek second opinions on prescriptions, he added.
“Large employers shouldn’t be in the business of telling doctors how to treat patients, but there are a lot of companies that could steer a patient in a better direction,” he said.
The report calls on employers to do just that, according to Ms. Peterson, who provided guidance for employers in the document. The tips included everything from working with health care providers and pharmacy benefits managers to training employees on risk factors.
“The next step is getting employers to deploy best practices,” said Mr. Gifford.
One in three workers reported using pain relievers with the majority of those on prescriptions drugs and under 5% of workers reported abuse of pain relievers or dependence, according to a study released Wednesday by the Integrated Benefits Institute.