More than 33,000 Americans died of opioid overdose in 2015. Opioid-related overdoses are now the leading cause of injury-related deaths in Michigan.

The fatalities related to opioids have been rising for several years and now account for more deaths than automobile accidents. Controlling the epidemic will involve the combined efforts of physicians, patients and policymakers.

For many years, well-intentioned advocates pushed for increased use of opioids in an attempt to address what was portrayed as an epidemic of undertreated pain. The resultant move to more liberal narcotic prescribing has increased narcotic misuse.

Policymakers are working to provide the legislative tools needed to address the epidemic. Physicians stand ready to help protect patients from both the potential for opioid abuse, and also ensure that patient care and proper pain management are not compromised.

Steps must be taken to stop the surprisingly common yet shocking way this epidemic often begins.

Approximately one in three patients that are prescribed a narcotic medication engage in non-medical use in the next year. These unintended consequences have led physicians to reexamine the way that narcotic medications are prescribed.

Many patients who report opioid abuse begin their non-medical use with prescription opioids given to them or taken from the medicine cabinets of friends or family.

One key to limiting the abuse potential of these medications is to remove them from circulation. Often, these are not medications being actively taken, but rather leftover from surgeries or prior injuries. Many of these prescriptions are several years old.

Physicians have recognized that opioid addiction and other substance use disorders are medical conditions, and not merely failures of judgment or character. As with any medical condition, one of the most powerful tools available to us is prevention.

An important easy first step is removing these medications from your home. Many communities now have opportunities locally to dispose of unused medications.

All Michigan State Police posts, many county sheriffs and pharmacies collect medications for safe disposal. The State of Michigan also maintains an up-to-date listing of locations on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality website that accept unused medications for safe disposal.

This April 29th is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, a great time to clear out your medicine cabinets to remove medications that are expired, unneeded or unwanted.

Fixing this epidemic will involve many people and will not be easy, but properly disposing of unused medications can certainly help.

Brad J. Uren, MD, is an emergency room physician and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. He co-chairs the Michigan State Medical Society’s Committee on State Legislation and Regulations.

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