Physicians call for drug abuse to be treated as 'chronic disease'

Physicians call for drug abuse to be treated as chronic disease.PlayToby Talbot/AP Photo
WATCH New recommendations on how to treat substance use disorder released by American College of Physicians (ACP)

With drug overdoses causing tens of thousands of deaths every year in the U.S., physicians are calling for the crisis to be treated like a medical emergency.

Today, the American College of Physicians (ACP) published a position paper arguing that action needs to be taken by the medical community and others to stem the crisis, especially in light of the massive growth of the opioid epidemic.

"Twenty-two million people need treatment and a large percentage of people aren't getting treatment," Dr. Nitin S. Damle, president of the American College of Physicians, told ABC News, citing national statistics compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). "We want to focus the spotlight on that."

In the paper, the ACP is making a host of new recommendations on the basis that substance abuse should be considered a chronic disease that needs ongoing treatment, not a "moral disorder or character defect."

Damle said compared to other chronic diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes, where 75 percent of people get treatment, just 18 percent of people with substance abuse disorders get treatment, according to CDC statistics.

The ACP paper emphasizes shifting the focus to treatment, rather than punishment, for drug addiction, including opioids. They said they would like to see tighter controls for opioid prescriptions, more training in the medical community to deal with substance abuse and more options for patients to receive mental health treatment.

In addition, the ACP advocates for policies that give non-violent drug offenders the option to receive treatment and reduced prison sentences for possession.

"We need to have more treatment programs and we need to have more funding in this area," Damle explained. "It's a heavy societal burden it really endangers families and not just individuals."

Physicians can make a huge difference in combating the substance abuse epidemic by limiting the amount of opioids they prescribe, Damle added. Checking databases to ensure patients aren't getting opioid drugs from other doctors and taking additional courses on substance abuse to better treat disorders can also help, he said.

Opioid abuse remains a deadly crisis in the U.S. An estimated 91 people fatally overdose on opioids every day, according to the CDC, and approximately 52,000 died from drug overdoses in 2015.

Dr. Caleb Alexander, Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, said the paper is "welcome news" given how little help there is for people suffering from substance abuse disorders.

"There is a huge gap between the need for these services and their delivery," Alexander said. "Millions of Americans need treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol use problem yet don’t receive."

"This is all the more shocking because it’s a good investment," he continued. "For every dollar invested in drug prevention and treatment, we save money as a society –- we can either pay for it now, or pay for it later."

Alexander said the fact that the paper emphasizes treatment for substance addiction rather than incarceration is important.

"When it comes to opioids, we should be talking about addiction, not abuse," he said. "Addiction is a disease, abuse is a behavior."

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