Blamed for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, opioid abuse has turned into a public health crisis in America. But one hospital is determined to reverse the epidemic.
Since January, 2016, St Joseph's Regional Medical Center, which boasts the largest emergency room in New Jersey, has stopped prescribing opioid painkillers in all but essential cases, slashing overall use by more than 40 percent.
‘While heroin use is on the decline in inner city New York, painkillers are most abused in suburbs and rural areas.’
While these powerful drugs are an "excellent" medication for terminal cancer patients or those with a broken leg, for the vast majority there are far safer courses of treatment, says emergency medicine chief Mark Rosenberg.
"In our first 60 days, we were absolutely shocked," Rosenberg told AFP. "We had 300 patients. And out of those 75 percent of them did not need opioids. It's just a remarkable change of our prescribing habits and our management of patients' acute pain," he added.
In 2014, 14,000 people died from an opioid overdose in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since 1999, these powerful painkillers have caused 165,000 deaths.
The problem dates back to the 1990s but critics accuse President Barack Obama of being slow to respond to the scale of the epidemic, comparing his delayed reaction to Ronald Reagan's sluggish response to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Back in the mid-1990s, drug companies, professionals and authorities promoted opiates as a compassionate medicine that would end pain and minimized concerns that they were addictive.
"It led to the epidemic that we're dealing with today," says Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer at Phoenix House Foundation, which treats addiction, and executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.
Experts say the opioid epidemic is a white problem. While heroin use is on the decline in inner city New York, painkillers are most abused in suburbs and rural areas -- generally wealthier, whiter areas.
Rosenberg says St Joseph's one-year fellowship, offered since January to New Jersey professionals, teaches safe alternatives, how to support patients to best manage pain and explain to them the dangers of opioids.
Next January, the program will expand to doctors, nurses and educators from across the United States and around the world, with enquiries already in from Britain, Canada, Scandinavia and Turkey.
"If you can sleep, if you can walk, then pain is not going to be your enemy. That's what our goal is, to make you functional in pain, not to eliminate it completely," said Rosenberg. "We need to do something."