Now that deaths from opioid overdose exceed those from car crashes, the medical community has come to recognize an error of historic proportions. In 2014, U.S. doctors wrote 245 million prescriptions for Vicodin, OxyContin, and other painkillers in the highly addictive family of opium derivatives known as opioids. That practice spares many patients from pain following accidents or surgery, but the cost is more than 20,000 deaths a year.
In the past, drug addiction was viewed more as criminal behavior than as a medical condition, said Nora Volkow, who heads the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "But what we are facing now is the responsibility of the health care system," she said. "We created this epidemic and we have to be responsible to overturn it."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for doctors last month, and President Barack Obama has promised better access to addiction treatment. Those measures could help, but to get to the root of the problem, doctors need to learn more about the science of addiction.