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Dispelling the myth of elective treatment

July 6, 2009
by Jim Moore
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Now, more than ever, we must show people the importance of addiction treatment

In recent weeks, I have read that one way some providers in the healthcare industry, especially hospitals, are being affected by the recession is in the area of elective procedures. It seems that patients are opting to postpone, or decline altogether, healthcare treatment that does not seem imminently necessary or life threatening.

Many times patients make their own decisions about whether or not something is necessary. After all, cutting back has become a lifestyle for most Americans right now. They are cutting expenses at work, at the grocery store, at home, in travel—cutting anything they consider a nonnecessity. And they’ve brought that mind-set into how they think about healthcare.

In the case of a bleeding ulcer or a broken arm, it isn’t hard to figure out that if you don’t take care of it promptly, it may cause long-term, irreparable, perhaps fatal damage. But when it’s not so obvious, the trend right now is for patients to walk away.

As professionals in the alcohol and drug treatment field, we need to join the discussion on this subject for patients’ sake, because we’re facing an increase in addiction and drug abuse. Just last year, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials told Congress that prescription drug addiction and abuse are rising at “an alarming rate,” and that the number of Americans abusing prescription drugs has increased by 80% during the past six years. This means we have more patients and potential patients who cannot afford to postpone treatment for their illness under the false impression that it is optional or unnecessary. Treatment for drug and alcohol addiction should not be seen as elective.

To that point, a colleague posed the question to a patient this way: “If you knew you had cancer, would you defer seeking treatment?” The answer was obviously “no.” It is time to increase awareness that alcohol and drug addiction, if untreated, is as serious as untreated cancer, that it can even increase the risk of cancer. For instance, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, heavy alcohol consumption has been found to have a linear relationship with an increase in breast cancer incidence in women.

Patients who choose to postpone or go without treatment often do not understand the seriousness of their illness and its potentially deadly effect on others. Their perception needs to change. Some of the most serious effects of addiction are not the visible kind, such as the increase in risk among heavy drinkers to suffer heart disease as well as liver and brain damage. We must make the case that alcoholism and substance addiction is not just a chronic illness; it is an irreparable, urgent, and life-threatening illness, one that is responsible for at least 120,000 deaths in the United States each year.

The issue of patients delaying treatment is hardly new to the alcohol and drug abuse treatment community. We help patients who suffer not only physically but also psychologically. It even has been reported that 50% of suicides involve alcohol or drugs. Our patients often are incapacitated and unable to seek help for themselves. But the current irony is too much, that fewer people would seek treatment, as they view it as a nonnecessity, yet as more struggle with addiction. More people are seeing their lives crumble before their eyes—addicts and abusers are the first to lose jobs, the first to alienate families when they need them most, and the first to commit senseless crimes.

Changing the perception about treatment can save lives and families and can ultimately brighten the outlook for America’s workforce. During these times of lost jobs, homes, and life savings, those suffering from alcohol and drug addiction are suffering most and are creating their own downward spiral. Now, more than ever, it is important that we dispel the notion that treatment is an “elective procedure.”

Jim Moore has worked in the field of addiction treatment since 1976. He is on the board of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) and has served as the CEO of Cumberland Heights . For more information, e-mail jim_moore@cumberlandheights.org .