Intermountain Healthcare announces first-ever 'opioid free surgery' program

By Alex Cabrero, KSL TV | Posted - Feb. 27, 2020 at 7:20 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY – Intermountain Healthcare became the first health system in Utah to establish an “opioid-free surgery” program for patients looking for alternative pain control methods.

Officials introduced the new program Wednesday, saying it was the first health system in the state to establish a program of its kind.

They said the program allows doctors to prescribe other drugs and nerve blockers to ease pain, without using opioids.

Sitting in a hospital room full of doctors wasn’t what Jason Zeeman ever thought he’d be doing. He figured he’d be lying down because of his addictions.

“I’ve struggled with addiction on and off for 28 years,” said Zeeman.

Yet, there he was in the hospital room during a news conference, even speaking about his own opioid addiction.

“I learned very quickly that addiction to opiates is very real,” said Zeeman.

Like tens of thousands of Utah residents battling opioid addiction, Zeeman first got them during and after a surgery. From that point on, he was hooked.

"Doctors were prescribing me 120 pills a week,” he said. “My opioid addiction has lasted for years and years and years. It progressed to heroin.”

Ultimately, his addiction turned to crime and landed him in jail. When he got out, he got help, and has lived clean ever since, but when he recently went in for another surgery, doctors offered opioids to ease his pain.

“I told them I don’t want opiates,” he said.

Zeeman was surprised to find out Intermountain Healthcare had started the new program.

Since this past October, nearly 250 procedures have been done with patients who wanted to be part of the new opioid-free surgery program.

“We thought that for all these years, we were putting water on the fire, when in fact, it was gasoline,” said Dr. Will Shakespeare, MD, who helped develop the new program with Intermountain Healthcare.

Doctors said it took a new way of thinking with a team willing to combat the opioid epidemic head on.

Instead, doctors prescribe other drugs and nerve blockers that don’t have the addictive qualities opioids do.

They’re maybe not as strong as opioids, but doctors said they’re working.

“An overwhelming response – 86% of those polled – said that their pain was adequately controlled, if not even better,” said Dr. Nathan Richards, who also helped to create the new program.

Doctors estimate since they started limiting opioids a couple of years ago, millions of pills haven’t been prescribed that normally would have been.

“Our efforts for two years have been really focusing on eliminating, or getting rid of, any excess opioids in the community. We’re really proud to say that, over these two years, we’ve decreased the number of opioids we’ve prescribed by 7 million tablets,” said Dr. Richards.

“It would’ve made a huge difference,” he said.

Patients can still be prescribed opioids if they choose, but doctors said they are doing a better job of keeping the number of pills under control.

Alex Cabrero

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