No one can deny that America is in the midst of a major health crisis in the fight against addiction. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), deaths from opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999. In 2014, nearly two million people in the US were addicted to or abused prescription opioids. Over 1,000 people are treated in hospital ERs for misusing these drugs every day.
If these numbers make you think of war statistics, you would not be far off; the medical community is in agreement that the problem has reached epidemic proportions. Right at the front lines of this addiction treatment battle are the nurses staffing hospitals and clinical facilities. Nurses play a crucial role in assessing, monitoring, and assisting in the treatment of addicted patients in various clinical settings.
Nurses provide addiction treatment at all stages of the admittance process, from the initial assessment through treatment and follow up care. In fact, nurses are typically the first clinical providers an opioid-addicted patient sees in any facility. This requires the nurse to be one part counselor and one part medical provider during the tricky first few moments of any medically related patient contact.
If a patient is admitted to the emergency room, nurses are tasked with screening the patient with a variety of questions to determine his or her health status. As part of the assessment, nurses are required to monitor for physical and psychological signs of drug abuse. One such screening is the National Institute on Drug Abuse Quick Screen, which asks if the patient has been using drugs or alcohol in the past year.
It is important to note that these screenings are designed to help, not judge. A HuffPost blog by Dr. Pamela Cipriano, RN, states:
This is an important distinction for nurses who are required to provide both physical and emotional care in a clinical setting.
In addition to clinical treatment, nurses can also help by educating patients on pain medication and alternatives for pain management including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen as alternatives to opioids.
Nurses who work in addiction treatment facilities have a very difficult job. They invest time and energy into patients who may relapse repeatedly before treatment gains a foothold. A registerednursing.org article points out one of the challenges nurses face when dealing with the opioid crisis, stating: “Many nurses feel they have ‘failed’ their patients in some way.”
Too, nurses can struggle to deal with the friends and family of the patient and what may be enabling or trigger behaviors that cause the recovering addict to want to relapse. All too often, in the worst cases, nurses must face the challenge of losing a patient to complications of addiction. In truth, the challenges and rewards of nurses in addiction treatment are as myriad as the individuals seeking help.
One thing is certain, however. Compassionate, caring nurses are a vital part of the army of addiction professionals needed to combat America’s drug crisis.