The U.S. Opioid Crisis: How Bad Is It?

April 1, 2021
April 1, 2021

There is often an ordinary, unremarkable beginning to a life dependent on opioids. Someone might experience a routine surgery or have some kind of accident such as a fall or car crash. Following events like these, a prescription opioid may be prescribed. Due to their profound pain-killing properties and dependence-producing potential, these events can cause patients to become dependent on opioids. The dependence on prescription opioids may subsequently shift to dependence on heroin due to its relatively low cost in comparison to prescribed medication.

“Many factors have intersected to drive the rate and reach of the opioid epidemic. Prescribing practices have played a substantial role, but those practices have been shaped in turn by circumstances ranging from medical issues—increases in chronic diseases, new surgical interventions, professional calls for better pain management—to the influence of market distortions, including misinterpretation of scientific data, introduction of new products, commercial marketing, and large quantities of unused opioids made easily accessible in the home” (National Academy of Medicine, 2017)

These factors, along with the scientific literature perspective that opioids produced low rates of addiction and were relatively safe, have fueled the problem. The tendency to prescribe opioids alongside aggressive marketing approaches has proven to accelerate our nation’s dependency on opioids.

What is the Magnitude of the Problem?

Opioids are very effective for treating pain. They can be used effectively but when used improperly can produce serious harm including overdose as well as potential dependence (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, 2017).

Approximately 65,000 individuals in the U.S. died in 2016 due to drug overdose, which represents a dramatic 21% increase from 2015. The opioid crisis is largely responsible for the increase—for example, two thirds of overdose deaths are associated with opioid misuse. Surprisingly, about half of all opioid overdose deaths are related to medications from prescriptions (National Academy of Medicine, 2017).

In only a few years of being available, Fentanyl has become the leading overdose killer in the U.S. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times stronger than heroin and morphine, and other synthetic opioids, killed over 21,000 people in 2016 (Vergano, 2017). The problem is so severe that the opioid crisis has become a national emergency. As of October 2017, “President Donald J. Trump is mobilizing his entire Administration to address drug addiction and opioid abuse by directing the declaration of a Nationwide Public Health Emergency to address the opioids crisis (The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2017).”

How Does Opioid Use in the U.S. Compare to Use in Other Countries?

According to the International Narcotics Control Board, if the amount of opioids prescribed per year were averaged out over each person living in America, everyone would get about a two-week supply—a rate that’s considerably higher than anywhere else in the world.

This blog post excerpts an article By Randy Carden Ed.D., Senior Research Consultant, HealthStream, in our complimentary eBook about Threats to Healthcare, Workforce Readiness: Preparing Today for Tomorrow’s Unknown. Download it here.


Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. (2017). Opioid Misuse Strategy 2016. CMS. Retrieved from

National Academy of Medicine. (2017). First do no harm: Marshaling clinician leadership to counter the opioid epidemic. Washington: National Academy of Medicine. Retrieved from

The White House Office of the Press Secretary. (2017). President Donald J. Trump is taking action on drug addiction and the opioid crisis. Retrieved from

Vergano, D. (2017). Fentanyl is now the leading cause of US overdose deaths. BuzzFeed News. Retrieved from