Nearly 100 Americans die every day from opioid-related causes as first responders and public health officials struggle to keep up.
Clinical treatment remains a critical part of the fight to end opioid abuse, but others have joined the battle against the opioid epidemic in a different way: with a targeted, strategic communication plan to spread the word that opioids can be highly addictive and dangerous.
ICF vice president Ronne Ostby and her team lead several initiatives for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including its Rx Awareness campaign to increase awareness about the risks of opioids.
As the epidemic threatens to kill nearly 500,000 people in the next decade, the team’s goal is to decrease the number of people using opioids either recreationally or for medical purposes (to manage their pain). For those with injuries that would generally warrant an opioid prescription, seeking other options besides opioids for safe pain management is crucial, according to Rosanne Hoffman, senior manager at ICF.
“It comes down to lack of foresight with highly addictive medication,” added Hoffman. “A culture of low tolerance for pain has somehow merged with the expectation that a doctor is supposed to eliminate their patients’ pain.”
Prescription opioid addiction is inherently problematic. They come with the endorsement of healthcare providers--and are often the first solution for pain rather than alternative therapy.
“People tend to trust their doctors, and doctors want to ease their patients’ pain,” said Ostby, who previously led strategy development for the White House National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. “That just creates a challenge that needs to be overcome from a communication perspective.”
Since ICF began partnering with the CDC on the opioid front years ago under Director Tom Frieden, the team has battled a growing national crisis with prescription opioids becoming a clear risk as a gateway to heroin. That’s why, Ostby said, it’s critical to reach the at-risk public at the very beginning of the trajectory, when an individual gets that first prescription.
The communications front also includes pointing those in need to treatment. Several families the team spoke with said they wished they had known about effective addiction treatment earlier--or before it was too late to save their loved ones.
“You never expect that you’re going to lose a child. It’s all out of order,” said Judy, a mother who lost her 43-year-old son, Steve, to a prescription opioid overdose.
Judy is one of several participants in the video testimonials developed by Ostby’s communications team. The data collected from the Rx Awareness pilot campaign indicate that personal stories are powerful in raising awareness and increasing knowledge about the dangers of prescription opioid use and misuse. Findings also suggest that campaign messages have the potential to not only affect awareness and knowledge, but also influence actions.
From lawmakers to people struggling with opioid use to everyone in between, we are all becoming more aware of the deadly opioid epidemic. As the campaign continues to tell its stories, we also see that this is not just as a national phenomenon—it is happening in every community.