Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Primary Care Physicians Aren't Prepared for Substance Abuse Issues

In the course of consuming news, studies, and other information related to prescription drug misuse and abuse, I sometimes come across seemingly unrelated data sets that paint a picture of broad, systemic issues.  Often, connecting these dots can illuminate a potential path forward, focus our efforts, and create progress toward solutions.  This week's example: 

Data Set #1
First, the CDC's latest data on drug poisoning deaths is disheartening.  After leveling off and even slightly declining in 2010-2013, the opioid death rate jumped considerably in 2014.  Meanwhile, heroin overdose deaths have continued a depressingly steady climb that goes back nearly two decades, but has clearly accelerated within the last 5 years.  Certainly, we have seen better days.  

Data Set #2
Health Affairs published an interesting piece in its December 2015 issue comparing primary care systems across 10 countries.  Primary care doctors were surveyed regarding general capabilities and attitudes.  While the survey was wide ranging, one of the categories stood out to me: the % of primary care doctors who report their practice is well prepared to manage the care of patients with complex needs.  Two key data points:
  1. Patients with substance-use related issues:
    • US primary care docs: 16% are well prepared.  This ranked near the bottom of the 10 country survey.  The UK was at the top of the list with 41% of primary care physicians reporting that they're well prepared to deal with substance-use related issues. 
  2. Patients with severe mental health problems:
    • US primary care docs: 16% are well prepared.  This ranked second to last (just behind Sweden at 14%) among the ten countries.  The UK also topped this category with 43% of primary care docs reporting they feel well prepared to deal with severe mental illness.  
To sum up... 

We have an escalating death rate from opioid and heroin overdose deaths in this country, driven in large part by substance-use related issues and mental illness.  And we have a primary care system not equipped to deal with the complexity of these patients.  

Help may be on the way in form of increased and mandated reimbursement for substance abuse and mental/behavioral health treatment via the Affordable Care Act.  But I'm struck by the fact that the vast majority of opioid prescribing occurs at the primary care level, not in the specialist's office.  If we're to make any progress, we need to focus education, resources, and tools within the primary care community so that a-heck-of-a-lot more than 16% of primary care physicians feel they're well prepared to help this complex group of patients.  

On Twitter @PRIUM1

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