Colorado hospitals cut back on opioid prescriptions

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - Penrose Hospital is among several hospital around the state starting a new program to cut back on the amount of opioids its doctors prescribe.

The program is called the Colorado ALTO Project, and it stands for alternatives to opioids. The Colorado Hospital Association launched the pilot program in 2017, and Penrose started it Dec. 1, 2018.

“We’re thinking differently because we don’t want people to become addicted to opioids because it is so easy for that to happen,” said Michele Hobbs, the hospital’s emergency services director.

Doctors say if a patient leaves with a prescription for opioids, their risk of becoming addicted to those opioids increases by 20 percent.

“Four out of five heroin users usually start because of a misuse of opioid medication,” Hobbs said. “So we don’t want to be part of the problem. We want to be part of the solution.”

Opioids, like OxyContin and Vicodin, have been the standard in the medical field for years, so this is a big change for patients and doctors.

“Opioids are the easy fix, and it is the standard. Patients come to expect that if you break something or you have some kind of extreme pain, they’re expecting to see a Morphine, a Dilaudid, something that will control that pain pretty quickly,” said Jasmine Cornelius, a pharmacy practice resident for Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.

Instead of prescribing opioids right off the bat when someone comes into the emergency room, the doctors are starting with alternatives.

“Since our Dec. 1 launch, we’ve completely changed it,” Cornelius said. “We’re looking at anti-inflammatories. We’re looking at even just fluids. There’s lots of regiments you can use to improve that pain that don’t have to be opioids, and a lot safer in administration.”

She said the hospital made sure all staff members were on the same page before starting the program.

When patients come into the ER now, they will all have a conversation with a doctor about the hospital’s new policy.

“We want to make sure that those patients know that we’re going to work together with them to provide great care and to make sure that we are controlling their pain, and having that conversation so they understand,” Hobbs said. “We may not be able to completely stop the pain, but we’re going to make that pain better, and we’re going to do that using non-opioid medications first.”

During the pilot program in 2017, the participating hospitals reduced opioid use by 36 percent in ERs, according to CHA. Penrose has seen similar results.

“So far, it’s been great. We’ve had a 25 percent reduction in opioid use from December to January, and 35 percent reduction from December to February,” said Dr. Michael Loew, an attending emergency physician at Penrose Hospital.

He said most patients are understanding and open to the change.

“They understand the national problem of opioid addiction and deaths from opioid medicines, and so, they’re very understanding in limiting use,” Loew said. “They do have some anxiety about, ‘Well, is my pain going to be treated appropriately?’ And it takes a little bit of reassurance, but I think for the most part, they’ve been very supportive.”

Right now, the program is only being tested in the ER at Penrose. The goal is to eventually expand it throughout the hospital.

UCHealth said it has been working to tackle the opioid problem at its hospitals since 2015. Some of its hospitals are also part of the Colorado ALTO Project.