The Role of Employers in the Opioid Epidemic

Lake Wobegon and the Role of Employers in the Opioid Epidemic 

Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion made famous a quaint place known as Lake Wobegon. In this fictional town it was claimed “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”. 

Recently, what’s come to be known as the Wobegon effect—a tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities—has taken hold in a new place. Every employer knows about the opioid crisis in America. Few seem to believe opioids are a problem for their employees.  

With 3 million new persistent opioid users in the U.S. each year, if you happen to believe the opioid epidemic is another state’s problem, another community’s issue, another company’s black eye, what I say next may be unsettling. 

You’re likely wrong. 

But what should you do about it? 

A recent Fortune article proposed being more open-minded toward employees who are experiencing addiction (Solution #1) and keeping closer tabs on the availability of the powerful pain killers through your medical benefits (Solution #2). These are well-intentioned pieces of advice. Yet:

Solution #1’s problem:  The proverbial horse is already out of the barn. Addiction treatment represents a long road with many twists and turns. It’s costly and, ultimately, unnecessary with a more proactive approach. 

Solution #2’s problem:  Reducing access to opioids looks good on the surface but may, in fact, push employees to seek painkillers on the black market. A recent study published by the American Journal of Public Health projected supply-side interventions and increased access to overdose antidote, naloxone, would reduce opioid-related deaths by only 10% in the next 10 years. 

Clearly, new answers are needed. 

What about addressing the underlying pain in the first place? And doing so at the point where so much opioid use starts—surgery. The numbers presented by the Plan Against Pain annual report show 90% of post-surgical patients receive a prescription for opiates and nearly 10% become persistent users. It’s the number-one gateway. 

Care guided by Enhanced Recovery After Surgery pathways offers a solution to changing the entire surgical experience.  

And it offers the opportunity for innovative employers to rightfully claim residence in that elusive place, Lake Wobegon.