Between 2006 and 2012, more than 32 million prescription pain
pills circulated through Berkshire County, Massachusetts, a rural
area of about 130,000 people.
Patients recovering from opioid
addiction are seen at the local emergency department every day, according to
Martha Roberts, a critical care Nurse Practitioner (NP) and Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies
alumna. Roberts works in Berkshire’s emergency department, which sees 50,000
patients per year — more than a third of the county’s population.
“It’s challenging,” she
said. “It’s also an opportunity to help those patients in a way that may
improve their outcomes.”
Patients in addiction recovery aren’t
exempt from the need for pain relief in the case of acute injuries, surgical
operations, or chronic pain. Providers like Roberts are tasked with finding and
offering alternatives to opioids.
How can clinicians balance the
weight of ethical responsibility with a patient’s need for immediate relief?
Opioid Dependence and Addiction in the United States
About 21% to 29% of individuals who
are prescribed opioids misuse them, and 8% to 12% of them develop an addiction,
according to the National Institutes of Health. Though only a small percentage
of patients are likely to develop an addiction, there is still a chance of
dependence, which is characterized by a physical reliance on the medication
that, if unaddressed, can lead to addiction.
Even if the patient is not
demonstrating symptoms of addiction, providers look for specific signs of
dependence, according to Dr. Jill Ogg-Gress, assistant
Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) program director at Georgetown University.
“Opiate medications have side
effects of dependence,” said Ogg-Gress, who works as a board-certified
emergency NP in several Iowa and Nebraska emergency rooms. “If a provider
recognizes that a patient is experiencing dependence, or if a patient
demonstrates behaviors of dependence, it should be recommended to the patient
they should talk to their primary care provider or the prescriber of the
Signs of opioid dependence
- Taking painkillers more frequently than prescribed
- Taking higher doses than prescribed
- Seeking a euphoric effect to counter physical pain
- Experiencing excessive sleepiness or irritability
Taking these signs into account,
providers can evaluate patients’ needs on an individual level to assess the
magnitude of pain. If the patient is likely to develop a dependence, the
providers may need to help them find an alternative treatment plan that is
effective and sustainable.
Ruling out opioids altogether isn’t
a realistic approach, Roberts said.
“There are still some painful
injuries that will benefit from short-term opioid use,” she said.
Her key to implementing an effective
treatment plan is working with the patient to assess their needs and openness
to non-opioid pain medication.
Commonly Used Alternatives to Opioids
Opioids are a class of drugs that can be prescribed for pain
relief but are highly addictive and illegal for consumption when not prescribed
by a health care provider.
Individuals recovering from drug
addiction might encounter injuries or surgical operations that require
management of immediate acute pain or chronic pain in the long term. Providers
can evaluate a patient’s needs when creating a treatment plan to manage that
Pharmacological alternatives to opioids
Analgesics: Some of the most common painkillers can be obtained over the counter in small doses or prescribed in high doses by a health care provider. Roberts and Ogg-Gress agreed that these are the most common alternatives to opioid prescriptions.
Acetaminophen can be used for pain relief and fever reduction, but it does not reduce inflammation. It’s one of the most common pain relievers among Americans, used by roughly 23% of adults each week.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can treat acute pain and inflammation. A 2018 report found that NSAIDs make up 5% to 10% of all medications prescribed each year.
Gabapentinoids: This class
of drugs includes gabapentin and pregabalin and has been historically used for
seizure prevention. It is available by prescription to address pain but only in
circumstances set by the Food and Drug Administration. While these painkillers
can be an alternative to opioids, Roberts said they are not her intervention of
choice because studies show there are other, more
When medication isn’t appropriate or
preferable, many non-pharmacological options exist to relieve pain and
“There are a lot of other nonpharmacological therapies that are available, if people are willing to try it,” Ogg-Gress said. “Providers need to educate patients regarding these pain therapies instead of the common thought of, ‘Here, take a pill, swallow it, and you’ll feel better.'”
- Localized numbing
- Physical therapy
Supporting Patients in Recovery
Every patient deserves time and attention to explain their case and their needs to a provider who is listening thoughtfully. Providers treating addicted populations must keep a constant eye out for identifying drug seeking behaviors, without stereotyping or wrongly assuming a patient’s motives. A 2016 report published by the National Institutes of Health described several types of drug-seeking behaviors:
Common Drug-Seeking Behaviors
Requests and complaints
- Describing a need for a controlled substance
- Asking for specific opioids by brand name
- Requesting to have a dose increased
- Citing multiple allergies to alternative pain therapies
- Taking more doses than recommended by the provider
- Hoarding a controlled substance
- Using a medication despite not being in pain
- Injecting an oral formula instead of consuming orally
Inappropriate use of general practice
- Visiting multiple providers for controlled substances
- Calling clinics when providers who prescribe controlled substances are on call
- Frequent unscheduled visits, especially for early refills
- Consistently disruptive behavior
Patterns of resistance
- Hesitancy to consider alternative pain treatments
- Declining to sign controlled substances agreement
- Resisting diagnostic workup or consultation
- Being more interested in the medication than solving the medical problem
- Obtaining controlled drugs from family members or illicit sources
- Using aliases or forging prescriptions
- Pattern of lost or stolen prescriptions
Clinicians who have identified these
behaviors can use electronic medical records and crossover notes from other
providers to see how many times a patient has sought medication for the same
“People are here for
assistance, but they’re not taking personal responsibility,” Roberts said.
Engaging with patients to help them
understand treatment plans can build a sense of agency over their
Roberts said providers can help
patients identify ways to care for themselves before writing a prescription for
opioids. She recommended a gradual approach to trying different types of
A Step-Wise Approach for Pain Management
- Get to know the patient
- Use analgesics to address pain
- Use non-pharmacological treatments
as intervention for side effects
- Encourage patient to stop smoking
and drinking alcohol
- Eliminate foods that irritate the
stomach or digestive system
- Reflect on previous steps: Did you
really exhaust everything?
- Consider opioids as a last resort, and only enough to support immediate pain relief
Nurse Practitioners who work with a
multidisciplinary team are uniquely positioned to provide holistic care.
Clinicians serving communities with large addicted populations have to be
familiar with law enforcement, social work organizations and, in the case of
making a referral outside the clinic or emergency department, recovery programs
and child protective services.
Roberts also acknowledged that
providers working in communities fraught with addiction are at a high risk for
fatigue. “If you have three back pain patients in a row, you’re going to
be pretty burned out within two hours of working your shift, so you really,
truly have to look at each case individually,” she said.
Taking time to self-reflect on
personal motivations for treating patients can help remind providers of why
caring for others is important to them.
“It’s hard to walk in and do a
good job if you’re upset about the work you’re doing,” Roberts said.
“Make sure you can do this without letting your own bias get in the way.”
Please note that this article is for
informational purposes only. Individuals should consult their health care
professionals before following any of the information provided.
Citation for this content:
[email protected], the online DNP program from the School of Nursing
& Health Studies
When people experience sexual assault,
they may sustain more than just physical injuries; trauma also affects short-
and long-term mental health. The medical treatment needed may require a
provider to examine parts of the body that were recently violated, which can
cause more distress. When reporting an assault, survivors often lack the
information they need about how to proceed.
Sexual assault nurse examiners
(SANEs) are trained to help survivors across this spectrum of patient care.
From providing evidence-based treatment to performing assessments to collect
forensic evidence that can be used in a criminal trial, these nurses play a
critical role in supporting survivors at the beginning of their recovery
What Is the Role of a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner?
When a sexual assault survivor comes to a SANE-certified hospital or community health center, a sexual assault nurse examiner is the first point of care, according to Kim Day, forensic nursing director for the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN). SANEs ask the patient if they would like a forensic exam, which can be completed even if the patient decides to not report their assault to law enforcement.
“Just going through the process with
someone and providing holistic patient-centered care for that patient during a
traumatic time in their life can really impact the way they leave the
hospital,” Day said.
Forensic exams are meant to document
trauma from the assault and collect evidence that could be used in a criminal
trial. This includes taking a medical history; documenting scratches, bruises,
abrasions, and other injuries on a body map diagram; taking photos of injuries;
collecting DNA swabs to be processed; and observing the patient’s behavior. In
cases where toxicology information is relevant, SANEs will also perform those
tests on a patient.
In addition to performing a forensic
exam, the main duty of a SANE is to provide holistic nursing care for the
patient. Survivors of assault may need access to testing for pregnancy, as well
as prophylactic antibiotics to prevent the contraction of diseases. Depending
on the patient’s needs, SANEs also provide referrals to see other specialists,
such as a licensed professional counselor, who can help them in their recovery
The SANE in Court: It’s Not Like “Law and Order”
Beyond working in the clinical
setting, SANEs are qualified to testify in court if a patient’s case goes to
trial. The specialized training SANEs receive prepares them to effectively
answer questions regarding evidence discovered during a forensic exam. However,
while SANEs can play a critical role in the trial process, the legal aspect of
the job is not the main focus, Day said.
“If the nurse goes into this work
thinking that they’re going to get the bad guy and put him behind bars, they
will fail at this… because that is not what we do,” she said. “The work we do
is nursing. We take care of the patients.”
This is a key factor to consider when choosing to become a SANE. Nearly 80 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to law enforcement, according to a Justice Department analysis of violent crime in 2016 (PDF, 669 KB). While performing a forensic exam and being prepared to provide evidence in court is a requirement of the job, the emotional and medical needs of a patient come first.
SANEs are trained to work within a multidisciplinary team, also known as a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), which includes survivor advocates, members of law enforcement, and mental health providers. Together, these professionals coordinate the response to survivors of sexual assault.
What Is a Sexual Assault Response Team?
SANEs and other trained health care
providers: When an individual decides they
would like to have a sexual assault forensic exam (SAFE), health care providers
like Nurse Practitioners (NPs) or SANEs address the initial physical and
psychological needs the patient might have as a result of their assault.
Survivor advocates: Individuals who need access to information and emotional
support can work with an advocate to navigate their path to recovery. A
survivor may reach out to an advocate via a crisis center, or one may be
brought in to support someone who has decided to seek treatment at a hospital
or report their assault to the police.
Law enforcement: In cases where an individual decides to report their
assault, police officers and detectives are responsible for taking statements,
coordinating with the hospital to receive the results of the forensic exam, and
investigating the alleged assault.
Prosecutors: In cases where the survivor has chosen to report their
assault and enough evidence is present, prosecutors are tasked with making the
decision on whether to bring the case to court.
Therapists and counselors: In the aftermath of an assault, whether a case goes to trial
or not, survivors need additional support to continue their recovery process.
Mental health professionals trained in working with sexual assault survivors
may provide care at any step in the recovery process, from coping with the
immediate aftermath of an attack to navigating long-lasting trauma.
Why Is Access to SANE Care Important?
According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three women and one in four men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes. The effects of experiencing an assault can be both physical and psychological, necessitating specialized care that embodies the concept of cura personalis, or care for the entire person. This holistic attention to the entire individual is the expertise of clinicians like nurses.
SANE education programs are designed
to train nurses to address survivors’ specific needs. After completion of this
training, SANEs become uniquely qualified to treat this vulnerable patient
group. This means that they can provide trauma-informed care to minimize the
harm of invasive exams that may trigger a patient. In doing so, they can also
equip their patients with forensic evidence that can be used if they decide to
report their assault.
Not all hospitals have SANE
programs. IAFN’s database of registered SANE
programs indicates that there are currently 962 in the
United States. As a result, patients are sometimes required to travel long
distances to access SANE care, according to a 2016 report on the availability of forensic examiners (PDF,
191 KB). This means that the facilities with SANE
expertise must be ready to do what they can to help every patient who walks in
Trauma-Informed Care and Practicing Consent
One of the key challenges of
completing a sexual assault forensic exam (SAFE) is examining a patient’s
physical injuries without retraumatizing them. To help survivors feel
comfortable, SANEs ask for consent during each step of the way while providing
information on why they are doing each test.
“Consent is not just a piece of
paper with a signature on it,” Day said. “It’s a process throughout the exam.”
In practice, the process of asking for consent may resemble the following:
- The SANE
will inform the patient what body part they will examine and ask permission to
“I’m going to examine your neck now
to see if there are any injuries. Do I have your permission to do so?”
- If the
patient grants this permission and the SANE notices something that may require
a sample collection, the nurse will again ask for permission to collect a
specimen and explain why collecting that evidence is appropriate.
“I notice a scratch that wasn’t
mentioned when I documented your health history. There may be DNA or other
materials near this wound, so I would like to swab it. Is that OK with you?”
In any instance where the patient
does not want a test performed, the SANE is directed to honor the patient’s
request. This integration of consent throughout the exam is meant to give the
patient a sense of control, a feeling that may have been lost during their
What Are the Requirements to Become a SANE?
Because SANEs work with a patient population that requires specialized care, nurses are required to meet certain expectations in order to take on this role. While some nurses go through training at the local level or through smaller programs, IAFN offers the most recognized certification for SANEs. Nurses can become certified as a SANE-A to care for adults and adolescents or a SANE-P to work in pediatrics. Some nurses elect to pursue both certifications so they can provide care to patients across all age groups.
Steps to SANE Certification
- Education: To become a certified SANE, a nurse must have the minimum of a registered nursing (RN) license.
- Experience: Prior to starting the certification process, a nurse must have at least two years of clinical experience working as an RN or at a higher level, such as an NP.
- Training: As part of the certification process, nurses are expected to complete 300 hours of SANE clinical skills training.
- Testing: The final requirement to become a certified SANE is to pass a certification examination. IAFN holds exams two times a year.
Information for Further Reading
Citation for this content:
[email protected], the online MSN program from the School of
Nursing & Health Studies