‘Enslaved by opioids’

Former public health officer focuses on local epidemic of prescription drug abuse

Former public health officer focuses on local epidemic of prescription drug abuse

In June, Dr. Mark Lundberg stepped down as Butte County’s public health officer and into a new role with the county’s Department of Behavioral Health. Now, he oversees the recovery of people addicted to narcotic painkillers.

Helping people overcome opiate addictions has been the most rewarding part of his career in health care, he told the CN&R during a recent phone interview. “I’ve seen the most remarkable changes in people’s lives,” he said. “When they come in, they are enslaved by opioids and they’re sick and tired of it. Every waking moment, they’re planning how they’re going to find and pay for it. It’s their mission in life—they’re desperate.”

That can include patients who are taking prescription drugs such as Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin exactly as directed by their physicians, he said. “They take so many opiate pills, they are in a dark place. They can’t break free from the legal prescriptions.”

Lundberg’s work is especially relevant in a rural county hit hard by all forms of substance abuse. According to the 2016 CDPH County Health Status Profiles report, which is based on data from 2012-14, Butte County’s rate of drug overdose deaths per capita (30.7 death per 100,000 people) is three times higher than the state average. And oversaturation of prescription medication plays a role. In 2015, there were 1,376 opioid prescriptions for every 1,000 people in Butte County, according to the California Department of Public Health.

However, the medical paradigm is shifting toward more responsible prescribing, Lundberg said. Nationally and locally, private practices and clinics are adopting more conservative guidelines for prescribing opioids, hospital emergency departments are crafting consistent policies, and doctors everywhere are embracing different modalities of pain management.

Lundberg also offered a reminder: Opioids are terrifically effective for treating acute pain caused by car accidents, surgeries and cancer treatment. “We can’t forget how important they are under the right circumstances,” he said. “It’s the chronic use of opiates that creates big problems for people.”

—Howard Hardee