Community Confronts Arizona Opioid Dependency

Experts gather to discuss trends, treatment and tools of battling opioid addiction

The U.S. is facing an opioid epidemic and physicians and community members are actively trying to combat this growing issue.

There were more than 33,000 opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2015. Arizona, which has the 12th-highest drug overdose mortality rate in the country, sends nearly 10,000 patients each year to emergency rooms for opioid abuse and dependency.

On May 23, the Phoenix Business Journal and Arizona Broadcasters Association hosted a panel of experts from the state of Arizona, medical, law enforcement and insurance industries to discuss the challenges Arizona faces from the opioid epidemic. The event took place at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix.

“This topic is overwhelming our country,” said moderator Kim Humphrey, chairman of the board for Parents of Addicted Loved Ones. “It’s the worst epidemic that has ever happened in this country, and the statistics are not even close to what is really happening. This is devastating our communities and I hope and pray that we start working together to find ways to address this issue.”

Opioids includes prescription painkillers like morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and heroin. Panelists said that in order to stop opioid usage, it must start with its inception, which means educating the community and youth about the dangers of taking opioids.  

“We’ve taught kids to buckle their seat belts, we’ve taught them to put on bicycle helmets, we pretty much got smoking at a constant number and that’s through education,” said panelist Frank Milstead, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety. “Until we start educating kids, this isn’t going to change.” 

In Arizona alone, 305 million pain reliever pills were dispensed last year, equivalent to medicating every adult in the state around-the-clock for two weeks.

“I was trained that pain was the fifth vital sign,” said Anne-Michelle Ruha, MD, professor at the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix and director of the Medical Toxicology Fellowship Program at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix. “We were always encouraged to make sure patients have no pain, so the answer was to give opioids. However, it’s changing and Arizona is taking steps to start educating physicians on opioid prescriptions.”

One of the steps the state is taking to prevent opioid use is working with the Arizona Board of Pharmacy, which maintains a database of all people in Arizona that obtain opioid prescriptions. When a physician is treating a patient, they can look up that patient’s name in the database and see all the opioid prescriptions they’ve obtained. This has been voluntarily used by physicians, but it becomes mandatory in October.

“This is one important step,” said Dr. Ruha, who also works at Banner as an emergency medicine physician. “There is so much that needs to be done and can be done.”

Dr. Ruha, who trained in emergency medicine with a fellowship in toxicology, became board-certified in addiction medicine a few years ago. She felt like she was treating more and more patients with substance abuse, and realized there was an opportunity to help patients.

“I want people to understand that these medications are highly addictive and as discussed today, even a single use can be the beginning of an addiction for someone,” Dr. Ruha said. “The longer you are taking these medications, the greater your chances are of becoming dependent. Patients need to understand the risks, and physicians need to be very conscientious of presenting those risks to their patients.”  

About the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix

The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix admitted its inaugural class of first-year medical students in August 2007 and is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The College inspires and trains exemplary physicians, scientists and leaders to optimize health and health care in Arizona and beyond. The College is uniquely positioned to accelerate the biomedical and economic engines in Phoenix and the State by leveraging vital relationships with key clinical and community partners. For more, visit