Community health assessment brings opioid task forces together

“It’s so easy to get addicted. I do whatever it takes to make the withdrawal stop.Overdose Deaths
It takes over; you do crazy things. I want to quit but I can’t – I’ve tried so many times.
There were alarms going off, but I was so desperate!”

The addictive qualities and ubiquitous presence of opioids have dramatically increased addiction and overdose rates across the country, leading the U.S. government to label the situation an epidemic. While statistics clearly show opioid addiction is a national crisis, evidence reveals it to be a serious public health issue right here in Pima County.

National, state and local efforts have been created to address opioid abuse. Tucson Medical Center and other Pima County stakeholders are focusing efforts to reduce opioid addiction’s grip on our community.

What is an opioid?

opioid10Opioid is a term referring to any substance that acts on opioid receptors in the body and produces morphine-like effects (reduce pain and induce sleep).

Heroin is an opioid and an illegal drug; however, many opioids are controlled substances – meaning they are manufactured under government control and can be legally used when prescribed by a doctor. Prescription drugs such as morphine, codeine, hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (OxyContinin) are all opioids.

Why are opioids prescribed?

There are many medical situations that can create chronic or severe pain. Opioids are often prescribed to treat chronic pain that has not responded to other pain medicines or pain-management techniques.opioid9 Under the care and supervision of a doctor, opioids can be a meaningful and safe pain treatment.

These medications can also be prescribed on a short-term basis to treat temporary acute pain, such as after a surgery or after an accident involving serious trauma.

Opioids are prescribed to treat pain because they inhibit or dull pain messages sent to the brain. These medications are addictive, and people can develop dependence with extended use. Many experience very strong withdrawal symptoms when opioid use is discontinued.

People can experience a euphoric feeling or “high” when opioids are used in large quantities or abused. If opioids are abused to get high, the body naturally builds a tolerance to the drug and more of the substance is needed to reach the high. People ingest more and more of the drug, chasing the high, and can overdose. An opioid overdose is life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

The problem

In the United States, overdose deaths involving opioids (prescription and illegal) has nearly quadrupled since 1999.

opioid11About 4,000 people begin recreational use of opioids each day, and almost 80 die each day from opioid-related overdoses.

Opioid addiction often leads to heroin use and addiction. Because heroin is cheaper than black-market prescription opioids, addicts turn to heroin once opioid prescriptions run out or are cut-off. Four in five new heroin users start by abusing prescription opioids.

Our own backyard

Opioid addiction and overdose are particularly serious problems in Pima County. In 2015, drug overdose was the leading cause of accidental death, with opioids accounting for a vast majority of overdoses.  In addition, the rate of opioid overdose in Pima County is more than twice the state average.opioid5

What are we doing about it?

Tucson Medical Center has joined with Pima County, area hospitals, community health centers and others to produce an annual Community Health Needs Assessment. As part of this effort, substance abuse and dependency was identified as a significant community health need.

Questions Street Sign

Task forces have been established by community stakeholders, including TMC, to address the many affects of opioid addiction. The goal is to bring community resources together to establish meaningful prevention and education, and increase accessibility to addiction treatment and services.

The state of Arizona has established the AZ RX Drug Misuse and Abuse Initiative, a multi-systemic effort to reduce prescription drug abuse in Arizona. opioid6The initiative created a tool kit that provides information and resources to help Arizona communities develop strategies to:

  • Reduce illicit acquisition and diversion of prescription drugs
  • Promote responsible prescribing and dispensing policies and practices
  • Enhance prescription drug practice and policies in law enforcement
  • Increase public awareness and patient education about prescription drug abuse
  • Enhance assessment and referral to substance abuse treatment

National level

The Food and Drug Administration has developed an Opioid Action Plan, refining guidelines for opioid use, supporting the creation of opioids with abuse-deterrent properties, and engaging other efforts aimed at reducing opioid abuse and dependence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has established new recommendations for prescribing opioids and assessing addiction risk.

The medical community has also responded. The American Academy of Pain Medicine issued a statement supporting legislation to address inappropriate opioid prescribing and declaring that opioids should be prescribed after alternatives have been considered.

The American Medical Association has also established an opioid abuse task force to enhance physician education and expand access to medications that help treat opioid addiction.

Moving forwardopioid12

Local, state and national opioid abuse task forces and getting underway. Legislation, regulations and guidelines are changing. Each person can play a role in Pima County by educating themselves, their families and friends. Spread the awareness to reduce stigma, and help addicts come out of the shadows and into treatment.



Additional Resources:

Community Health Needs Assessment

Addiction services in Pima County

Local prevention resources

Regional Behavioral Health Authority (RBHA)

AZ RX Drug Misuse and Abuse Initiative

Arizona Substance Abuse Partnership

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

National Institute on Drug Abuse



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Tucson Medical Center | 5301 E. Grant Road | Tucson, Arizona 85712 | (520) 327-5461
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