“I am asking for your help,” the US Surgeon General writes.

The CDC has recently reported that opioid overdose fatalities have quadrupled over the last two decades, resulting in over 165,000 deaths since 1999. Many of those accidental overdoses (including the recent Fentanyl overdose death of the singer Prince) involved doctor-prescribed medications, which has prompted the US Surgeon General (the country’s highest-ranking medical officer) to take unprecedented action. For the first time in America’s history, the US Surgeon General—Dr. Vivek Murthy—wrote a letter to over two million physicians across America. In the address, the Surgeon General pleaded with his colleagues to take action against the opioid overdose epidemic, writing: “I know solving this problem will not be easy. We often struggle to balance reducing our patients’ pain with increasing their risk of opioid addiction. But, as clinicians, we have the unique power to help end this epidemic.”

The Surgeon General outlined a solution, advising physicians to consider painkiller-free alternatives when treating patients for chronic pain. He also recommended that physicians actively screen patients for opioid abuse and steer them towards an addiction and chronic pain treatment center when necessary.

Opioid epidemic quote by the Surgeon General

“We Will Build a National Movement”

In the letter and in subsequent press interviews, the Surgeon General emphasized the point that much of the problem has resulted due to misinformation. Doctors may have had the best intentions when prescribing opioids, but many did not (and still don’t) realize that the medications they are giving patients are highly addictive and can lead to dependence, even “when prescribed for legitimate pain”. Although the epidemic may have started in the doctor’s office, the Surgeon General hopes it will end there, too. “Years from now,” he writes, “I want us to look back and know that, in the face of a crisis that threatened our nation, it was our profession that stepped up and led the way.”

Addiction is “Not a Moral Failing”

In addition to being historical, this letter is significant because it stands as yet another example of how far public opinion has come in its attitude towards the disease of addiction. In the letter, the Surgeon General encourages physicians to discuss and treat addiction “as a chronic illness, not a moral failing”—a powerful message, particularly when delivered by the nation’s top doctor.