Friday, June 3, 2016

Will Prince's Death from a Fentanyl Overdose Change Anything?

To say that the death of Prince a few weeks ago was a shock to the music community would be an understatement. To be honest, I wasn't all that familiar with his music - or so I thought. As I read the ensuing articles and Facebook posts, I came to appreciate the impact this man had on our collective musical soul, a man who was taken much too early.

It's a familiar story, his cause of death - an unintentional drug over dose. In this case, it was the pain killer Fentanyl. Too many people have been killed by unintentional drug overdoses. And every time it's someone famous or influential, there is hand wringing and there are calls for greater control of these potentially deadly medicines, and that things need to change. But what things?

When I worked as a nurse in hospice, Fentanyl was the drug of choice for many of my patients to help relieve the severe pain that end-stage cancer can cause. I saw the difference in my patients before and after they received the medication, misery before, relief after. My mother was on Fentanyl for chronic pain for many years, pain from spinal stenosis. It was the only medication that provided any type of relief and the fact that it was a patch that could last days, not hours, was a huge bonus. But, like many such drugs, there's a dark side to Fentanyl. It is addictive. Very addictive.

So, we have a medication that can help a person live life with less pain and a drug that can destroy a life. Where do we find a balance? And is there a balance?

It's already very difficult for some people with pain to get adequate pain relief. Some doctors are afraid of prescribing such powerful drugs, preferring to err on the side of caution, so they think. So the patients suffer, or look for another doctor. They run the risk of being accused of doctor shopping.

When patients do have a prescription, seeking renewals can be a nightmare; they may be treated like drug-seekers. If these patients present at emergency departments because they are desperate, some staff members don't believe that the pain is real. Some pharmacies don't even carry adequate amounts of the pain killers, if at all.

If we "tighten up" access to these drugs even more, where are those who need the drugs going to get them? Yet, we can't deny the seriousness of the issue of drug abuse. We can't ignore that people are becoming addicted to these drugs and lives are being destroyed because of them.

So, will Prince's death change anything? It's doubtful. If it does, I fear that it will make these medications even harder for people to obtain to relieve their pain. Is there a solution? There has to be. But what?

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