Michigan is one of eight states in the country with more opioid prescriptions than people. As a part of a public awareness campaign, the University of Michigan has organized an online teach-out course to deleve into the roots of the crisis—the freee course opened for public access Monday.

James DeVaney, associate vice provost for Academic Innovation, explained University teach-outs are done in a collaborative effort from a variety of departments throughout the school and offer a platform on which faculty, students and global audiences can communicate through.

“The opioid epidemic is a perfect topic for the U-M Teach-Out Series,” he said. “It is a complex problem that requires wide-ranging expertise in order to begin to develop meaningful solutions. It is a discussion that is strengthened by experts at U-M and the lived experiences of public learners around the world.”

Opioids are commonly known painkillers that have a high rate of addiction, abuse and overdose. These characteristics are what make these drugs so dangerous, especially when nearly a quarter of a billion opioid prescriptions were written in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to Michigan State Police and a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis, more Michiganders die from opioid abuse than firearms or car accidents. With the increased availability, deaths due to drug overdoses involving opioids are increasing — taking over 90 American lives a day.

The teach-out will offer an in-depth look at the problem and these concerns, showing the multiple causes and results of the epidemic, as well as ways the public can help fight this growing plague.

“Participants will have the opportunity to understand the current epidemic by exploring the topic from multiple perspectives,” Devaney said. “Before participants identify and propose new solutions to the crisis, they will learn about the build up to the crisis, the role of pharmacies, the role of the medical community, the role of the pharmaceutical industry and the role of families. Learners will understand how we got here, stigma and what it means for the crisis to be declared a national health emergency.”

Jay Lee, a general surgery resident at Michigan Medicine and part of the faculty participating in the session, is also part of the research team at the Michigan Opioid Prescribing and Engagement Network, in which he has investigated physicians’ role in the epidemic.

“In 2001, physicians embarked on a well-intentioned campaign to improve pain management for patients,” Lee said. “At the same time, pharmaceutical companies began aggressively marketing prescription opioids. The situation was further exacerbated by a study (Addiction Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics), which, when taken out of context, seemed to suggest that becoming addicted to prescription opioids was very rare.”

Lee is also a researcher in many opioid studies that aim to understand the number of opioids needed after surgery, a factor in the growing amount of opioid dependence. 

“This information is critical to making opioid prescribing safer,” he said. “Prior to these studies, physicians could only guess about how much opioid a patient would need after surgery. This led to misuse of these medications and an abundance of leftover opioid pills in the community, which frequently end up in the hands of people with opioid addiction.”

Lee explained the teach-out will help integrate the public in the solution of the crisis.

“These will help people better understand the tremendous dangers of these medications, how to use them safely and how to dispose of leftover medications,” he said.

Rebecca Haffajee, an assistant professor of health and management policy, is also part of the teach-out’s faculty.

Haffajee said many policies have been put into place, like drug-monitoring programs and pain clinic regulations, but more are still needed for stronger effects.

“We are still evaluating numerous policies, as well as piloting new ones, to tackle this crisis head-on without generating other public health unintended consequences — like reducing access to appropriate opioid prescribing or encouraging substitution from prescription opioids to illicit sources,” she said.

The teach-out will allow a platform for conversation on this topic and provoke some new thoughts in the public.

“We are aiming to reach diverse audiences through this teach-out, to provide views on the crisis from experts of varying fields and perspectives,” she said. “Since almost everyone has been personally affected by the opioid crisis, we all have something to contribute in terms of brainstorming solutions.”

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