Medical Technologies to Solve the Opioid Crisis

This post is one in a series by students in “Emerging Technologies and the Future of the World,” a new interdisciplinary course on how political, legal and social factors influence technological change.

Camille Cassard is a senior and a University Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Political Science and French. Her research focuses on the impact of emerging technologies on health and immigration policies.

In 2016, approximately 11.5 million Americans misused prescription opioids, including 1.8 million people who had a substance use disorder related to a prescription pain reliever. We are currently living through a devastating opioid crisis in the US with the number of overdose related deaths failing to subside. While not all opioid addictions result from prescriptions, a large number of people become addicted to opioids after being prescribed them by a doctor.

It is clearly very important to appropriately and adequately address acute pain in patients. We must reassess how these pain medications are provided to patients and consider how Medical Cyber-Physical Systems (MCPS) could be used to manage users’ access to these opioids. These networked systems could provide closed loop systems of controlling patient’s dosage of opioids to prevent long term addiction and/or illegally selling of excess pills.

The current issue with medicated opioids is that in an acute setting, doctors have the duty to treat pain appropriately. For a patient undergoing surgery (sports injury, dental surgery, cancer, etc.) or suffering from trauma, opioids often present the most suitable option. However, opioids are highly addictive because they activate powerful reward centers in your brain. Taking opioids for over three days consecutively can develop into an addiction. Around six per cent of people who had never used opioids prior to surgery take them for longer than necessary and of those that receive curative-intent cancer surgery, 10 per cent use opioids for three to six months. Hysterectomy recipients get twice as many opioids as necessary. Given that 600 000 hysterectomies are performed in the United States every year, it is necessary to identify specific patient factors to manage how much pain medication is prescribed and controlled. The leftover extra pills might be either consumed by the patient if they develop addictive behavior or illegally sold to others.

MCPS can provide a solution to the problem of extended usage and over-prescription of opioid medications. MCPS are capable of treating a patient within a specific clinical scenario, ensuring their treatment options are personalized and adjustable. The devices used in MCPS are categorized either as monitoring devices (oxygen-level monitors; heart-rate sensors) or as delivery devices (infusion pumps). In the case of opioid medication, MCPS used as an infusion pump could help control patients’ access to opioids, preventing the development of addictions or the reselling of excess pills. Patient Controlled Analgesic (PCA) infusion pumps are currently used in some cases to deliver pain relievers upon the patient’s demand. This type of infusion pump is widely used for pain control of post-operative patients.

Continue reading on the course’s Technology, Innovation, and Society blog.