UT creating campaign promoting fight against painkiller epidemic

FILE: Miscellaneous pills. (NBC News)
FILE - Miscellaneous pills. (NBC News Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new target in the fight to reduce painkiller abuse and overdoses — the physicians who prescribe them.

In order to help prescribers and dispensers make more informed decisions while preventing patient abuse, the Texas Legislature created the Texas Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP) asking licensed pharmacies to report all prescribed controlled substances no later than the next business day after the prescription is filled.

Some pharmacists are registered and using the program more than a dozen times daily.

“A patient comes in that’s new to our system with a controlled substance, we check it. Somebody comes in and says they want to pay cash for controlled substance, we check it,” said Mark Newberry, owner of Tarrytown Pharmacy in Austin.

Newberry says the PMP system can be an effective tool in tracking patients who use the powerful medications to treat pain, but may misuse the drugs, causing overdose deaths across the nation

“We can look and see if a patient is pharmacy shopping, if they go from me and then other places. And we look to see if they are doctor shopping so maybe they are coming here, but they are going to 4 or 5 or 6 different doctors,” he said.

The problem is, only about one-third of local doctors are using the programs. Newberry says it comes down to time.

“So when we have to have a pharmacist or technician checking those things to verify that a patient is legitimately getting a prescription written, it is a burden,” he said.

Now, the University of Texas at Austin Center for Health Communication has an idea of how to help get the word out to pharmacists through an ad campaign.

Thanks to a new $642,000 contract from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, researchers from the Moody College of CommunicationDell Medical SchoolCollege of PharmacySchool of Nursing and Steve Hicks School of Social Work are tasked with developing a statewide ad campaign encouraging doctors and pharmacists to use the system.

“This can help prescribers do better by their patients, to help make sure the right people get the right prescriptions, but really help reduce the chances of misuse,” said Mike Mackert, director of UT’s Center for Health Communication.

Mackert says, for example, even though many prescribers believe it may take too much time, this campaign may provide ideas or solutions on how to combat that.

“If we can communicate that actually, you could have a delegate in your office who’s properly trained pull all the information for you, we could reduce that perceived barrier to using the system,” Mackert said.

The group is looking at what ways they want to distribute the campaign, but a majority of the focus may be on social media.

“I think the goal is kind of look at the way we know things will help things spread online and to the degree we can rely on engaging stories, good narratives, smart infographics,” Mackert said. “We want to work really hard to not have the message be “opioids are bad,” because we know there’s times where they are the right tool for a particular condition, a particular problem.”

Opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, there were 33,091 opioid overdose deaths in the United States. Twenty-two thousand of those deaths involved prescription opioids. Every day, more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency rooms due to misusing prescription opioids.

On Saturday, Oct. 28,  pharmacies and police stations across the country will allow people to get rid of unused prescription drugs. It’s part of National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. You can find a list of drop-off locations on the city of Austin’s website.

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