The message was clear at a Thursday afternoon press conference in the Henry A. Jordan Medical Education Center. The opioid crisis in America affects everyone, across all boundaries.
“It affects teenagers, who have their entire lives in front of them. It affects elderly who struggle with chronic pain ailments,” said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, Dean of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Every family is impacted by our problems with prescription drugs.”
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf joined the dean to announce the official launch of Pennsylvania’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP), a new system in which physicians will submit information about prescriptions they issue for drugs deemed controlled substances by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Per the new law, physicians are required to check the system when prescribing a new patient a controlled substance, or if they believe their patient may be abusing or distributing their medication.
The PDMP will allow the state to keep better track of opioid prescriptions and give physicians the chance to see what their patients have already been prescribed. At the end of the day, it will help doctors spot patients who may be struggling with their prescriptions, and guide them to assistance.
Speaking to a group of first year medical students in attendance, Governor Wolf described the PDMP’s intent.
“With the opioid crisis, it will let you see if maybe someone is taking too many and is crying out for help,” he said. “It’s giving you tools that are going to make your life easier and the life of your patients easier.”
Karen Murphy, RN, PhD, secretary of Health for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said she was “awestruck” by the magnitude of the overdoses in commonwealth, a crisis which killed about 3,500 people in 2015 and is on track to possibly kill even more this year.
“If it was any other public health issue, I think we might have gotten our act together a little bit sooner,” she said. “The goal of the program is to monitor drugs for the purpose of identifying those in need of help and getting them that.”
The new program comes at a prudent, if not a little late, time. Deaths from overdosing on prescription opioids have skyrocketed across the nation in the last 15 years, a trend experts largely blame on the abundance of these powerful prescription painkillers. At the press conference, Gov. Wolf stated Pennsylvania has the 10th highest number of prescription overdoses in the nation.
Philly in particular remains a hotspot of opioid abuse, according to data. The DEA’s 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary showed that prescription narcotics have actually become more available on Philadelphia’s streets, and President Barack Obama listed the Philadelphia/Camden region as one of the nation’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas.
It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who grew up in the area over the past couple of decades. I’m from South Jersey, in one of the cramped Camden County towns on the other side of the Walt Whitman Bridge. When I graduated from high school a little more than 10 years ago, opioids didn’t seem to be much of an issue, but that hasn’t been the case in the years since.
After graduation, it wasn’t long before friends began to peel away, finding their way to the world of opioids. My mom, a teacher in the high school, would tell me about overdoses of former students, often in a class only a year or two ahead of or behind mine.
Gov. Wolf emphasized that point in the press conference. He told the story of a longtime friend, a man his age and from his peer group, who approached him recently. With wet eyes, his friend told him of his daughter who had recently died of a drug overdose.
Jeanmarie Perrone, MD, a professor of Emergency Medicine and a member of an advisory group for the PDMP, told WHYY Radio this week that the program may not prevent new addictions, but it will allow doctors to better know what drugs their patients are taking and allow them to intervene in dangerous cases.
"In the emergency department, we often see patients for acute new injuries and write some of these prescriptions as patients are discharged,” Perrone told WHYY Radio. "It's going to prevent a cascade of overprescribing in some patients and hopefully prevent some inadvertent overdoses."
Registration for the new PDMP is live and all prescribing physicians are encouraged to register as soon as they can.
“We have a big problem here in Pennsylvania,” Gov. Tom Wolf said. “And it’s an opioid problem.”