Opiate prevention advocates target doctors' offices


, @CP_KimMulford

When he worked as a cop in Camden, Robert Chew regularly encountered people entangled in New Jersey's opiate epidemic. The number of people hooked after taking prescription painkillers surprised even him.

"That's the one thing people don't understand," Chew said. "It has no boundaries. People can become addicted, no matter what."

On Thursday, the retired homicide detective will walk the streets of Camden once again, delivering educational materials door to door and visiting medical offices as part of Knock Out Opiate Abuse Day, a state-wide outreach effort organized by the Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey. An estimated 2,000 volunteers will roll out in every county, said Angelo Valente, executive director of the state-backed organization.

Valente believes it's the first time prevention advocates have targeted doctors' offices in much the same way pharmaceutical sales representatives do.

In 2013, providers wrote enough painkiller prescriptions for every American adult to have their own bottle, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The following year, an estimated 2 million Americans were dependent or abusing the drug, and the number of opioid-related deaths hit an all-time high.

Earlier this year, the agency published new opioid prescribing guidelines for chronic pain. Volunteers will share copies of those guidelines to each doctor they visit. The partnership's materials also warn parents to be wary of opioid painkillers prescribed to children.

"We thought it was crucial to get this important information out," Valente said.

The effort builds on the partnership's "Do No Harm" symposium series to educate doctors through local hospitals. More than 2,000 prescribing physicians attended the series during a two-year period. Surveyed afterward, most said the information would help them develop safer prescribing habits, Valente said.

"We believe most doctors want to do what's best for their patient," Valente said. "If opiates are prescribed, they should be prescribed on a very limited basis, a three-day supply."

In New Jersey, providers wrote 63 painkiller prescriptions per 100 people, according to 2012 figures cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was among the lowest rates nationally, and it's going down, noted Dr. Joseph P. Costabile, president of the Medical Society of New Jersey and a surgeon in practice at the Virtua Surgical Group in Cherry Hill.

The Medical Society of New Jersey "is at the forefront of the drug abuse issue," the Marlton resident said in an e-mailed statement. "We have been offering free educational seminars on best prescribing practices to physicians across the state, reaching thousands."

The organization has also worked to educate physicians about the state's prescription monitoring program, patient consent agreements, proper storage and disposal, and other best practices, he added.

"The fact is that New Jersey physicians do prescribe controlled substances responsibly," Costabile said.

Thursday's effort reinforces the message, advocates explained. In Camden County, Greg Marino expects to visit as many medical offices as possible to distribute the information. An addiction medicine representative for Seabrook House, Marino regularly teaches doctors and nurses about addiction prevention and treatment — and it's "always well-received," he said.

The nonprofit treatment facility commonly treats people who became addicted through prescription painkiller use. When Marino heard about the outreach effort, he was eager to help.

"I just think it’s really rewarding to see so many different people working together in such a positive way to try to address this from all angles," Marino said.

Powell Stevenson of Mantua plans to canvass his own neighborhood Thursday, leaving educational materials on door knobs. The 76-year-old serves on the partnership's steering committee, after a career devoted to improving safety in the workplace.

"I'm going to tell them if they allow the doctors to give their children or themselves Oxycontin or opiates, they're right on the edge of becoming addicted," Stevenson said.

"About five days on (Oxycodone) and you're hooked," Stevenson warned. "The road back is very slippery."

Kim Mulford: (856) 486-2448;