Doctor addresses opiate abuse, heroin

Matt Stensland
Dr. David Wilkinson speaks Wednesday during the final Lunch and Learn serie about opiate abuse.
Matt Stensland

— The final session of the Lunch & Learn series wrapped up Wednesday, but the conversation about opiate abuse in Routt County is not finished.

Again, nearly all the seats were filled at Bud Werner Memorial Library for the final session, hosted by the Rx Task Force.

Dr. David Wilkinson, with the Yampa Valley Medical Center, and Jen Murphy, with The Foundry, were the featured speakers.

“There isn’t a physician in this town that doesn’t know this is a growing issue,” said Wilkinson, who is medical director for YVMC’s emergency department.

Wilkinson, who has worked in the emergency department for 34 years, said opiate abuse has become an epidemic. He recalled when a young man was dropped off outside the emergency department unconscious and not breathing. The staff was able to save the man’s life, but the addictive qualities of opiate drugs and heroin were apparent when Wilkinson talked to the patient.

“He said, ‘Quit using heroin? I like heroin,'” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson’s talk was titled “Not in our house: Empowering the community.”

Mortality for all demographics has dropped, Wilkinson said, except for men ages 45 to 54 years old.

“It’s specifically related to narcotics, opiate and heroin use,” Wilkinson said.

He said the number of prescribed narcotics quadrupled between 1999 and 2013.

Pain management is a delicate balancing act for doctors, who are obligated to treat pain compassionately, Wilkinson said.

He presented some big and small solutions to help curb the country’s problem with opiates. He advocated for a different way for doctors to learn how much pain patients are in. Currently, in emergency rooms, patients are asked to rate their pain on a scale from zero to 10, with zero being no pain.

“It’s arbitrary, and we’re letting patients describe that arbitrarily,” Wilkinson said.

He also supports pharmaceutical companies developing new drugs that relieve pain but do not have the addictive qualities of opiates.

There have been some strides in monitoring opiate abuse, however. Wilkinson said that, in Colorado, there is a system in place for doctors to see what medications a patient has been prescribed in the past.

He said YVMC is also doing its part by bringing in experts to train doctors and by offering a chronic pain management program that takes into account a patient’s mental health.

“In the end, it depends on family, community and operations like the task force to really make a difference,” Wilkinson said.

Attendees of the session included concerned parents, educators, pastors and elected officials, including Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg, who wanted to learn what the task force was doing.

“I’m 100 percent behind what they are doing,” Ryg said. “I’ve seen so much sadness.”

Ryg recalled last year going to the memorial service for a 20-year-old man who was raised in Steamboat and died from a heroin overdose. On his way to the service, Ryg was called to a death across the street from the church at a hotel. A 25-year-old Steamboat man had died from a drug overdose.

“The amount of drugs that I have to confiscate at a scene is mind blowing,” Ryg said. “Somehow, we have to get a handle on this.”

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland

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