Neuroscience Institute

Multidisciplinary Approach to Combat Opioid Epidemic

The scope and impact of the national opioid epidemic are hard to fathom. Opioids are currently responsible for more than 42,000 deaths annually. Every day, 115 Americans die from an opioid overdose. It has claimed more American lives than the AIDS epidemic in the mid-90s, yet unlike the AIDS epidemic, the opioid crisis has yet to peak. Without intervention, public health officials project the opioid death toll will eclipse 500,000 Americans in the next decade.

Addressing this nationwide issue is a monumental challenge, but Virginia Mason is making a difference through its multidisciplinary pain management program. Because pre- and post-operative pain issues are often involved with spine cases, Virginia Mason’s Neurosurgery team has been instrumental in the program. “We did not feel the current opioid prescription guidelines realistically represented appropriate pain management for our surgical population,” says neurosurgeon Jean-Christophe A. Leveque, MD. “We felt strongly that this was an issue we needed to help address by developing a framework and reasonable goals. One of the things we did was institute an across-the-board prescribing protocol last year that is based on best practices. It has been both well-received and effective.”

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Her pain now under control, Patricia Moorhead relaxes with a cup of tea.

Virginia Mason also has embedded pharmacists on clinical teams so they are able to better educate and support patients and providers, manage medication treatment plans, recommend adjunct therapies like physical and occupational therapy, acupuncture, and to facilitate consults for conditions, like sleep apnea, when appropriate

A local woman who can attest to how the pain management program positively impacted her is 63-year-old eastside resident, wife and mother of two, Patricia Moorhead, a teacher who taught in the Lake Washington School District for 13 years. Patricia is currently tutoring and plans to return to teaching soon.

In 1990, the car she was in was rear-ended. Patricia sustained a concussion and needed surgery to relieve the compression of the vessels and nerves in her neck. Following the procedure, she suffered from consistent headaches. A few years later, she injured her neck again while landscaping. The constant pain brought her to Virginia Mason physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Andrew Friedman, MD. Soon after, Patricia underwent cervical surgery and was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and fibromyalgia. She continued teaching until 2011, when she had a physical and emotional crisis because of her chronic pain.

Every day, 115 Americans die from an opioid overdose.

To relieve her symptoms, Patricia took four Vicodin pills each day. Concerned, she began seeing Dr. Friedman again and was introduced to Virginia Mason’s multidisciplinary Pain Management Program. “Dr. Friedman reassured me that I wasn’t becoming an addict. He put me on a low-dose opioid prescription that I was able to decrease to three pills a day,” Patricia explains.

While in the program, she was referred to a pain psychologist who taught her mindfulness and meditation, and armed her with information and encouragement to cope with pain. She also saw a naturopath, received physical and occupational therapy and benefitted from a visit with the hospital chaplain.

Patricia is now down to just one and a half Vicodin pills a day. With continued assistance from the Pain Management Program, she is optimistic about continuing to taper down and getting completely off pain medication in the not-too-distant future.

“Virginia Mason just gets it. They validate people,” she says.