New Program at Penn Medicine to Fight Back Against Opioid Use

A Philadelphia doctor is making history by creating a new program to reduce opioid use in neurosurgery patients.

"I had pain in my back for a long time. Finally, it got to the point where I couldn't walk 2 blocks without my back hurting me," said Howard Roberts.

The pain was so bad, it prevented Roberts from playing golf, his favorite sport.

His wife Stephanie is a retired nurse and encouraged him to go to a specialist. "You don't get behind the pain, you get ahead of it," it was she would often tell him.

But, a doctor refused to operate on Roberts. "He wouldn't touch it because there 5 vertebrae infused. He said, I can't do that. I came to Dr. Ali and she didn't even bat an eye. You're in!"

Spinal surgery patients often take opioids on a daily basis following the operation. Research shows that a small percentage of patients tend to get addicted.  Howard did not want to become a statistic.

Dr. Zarina Ali developed the "Enhanced Recovery After Surgery" program, or ERAS, at Penn Medicine. It focuses on spinal surgery patients, to reduce the amount of opioid use before, during and after surgery.

The program is very timely. The latest numbers from the City of Philadelphia show of the 1,217 overdoses in 2017, 88-percent involved opioids. "What we did was took a look at the surgical journey that the patient undergoes at a patient level. We thought about dissecting that whole process, start to finish," said Dr. Ali.

She communicated with everyone who interacted with Roberts, from nurses to anesthesiologists, to make sure everyone was on the same page. But, the program came with some push back.

"I definitely received some skepticism when we were first trying to roll something like this out about how this will affect overall satisfaction," said Dr. Ali.

The results speak for itself. Researchers found those who took part in the ERAS program experienced the same amount of pain as other spinal surgical patients. However, they found other ways to manage it and used fewer opioids.

Stephanie noticed a big difference in her husband just days after the surgery. "He started playing golf as soon as he was allowed after the surgery," said Stephanie.

Although he admits it wasn't his best game, Roberts is just glad he was able to get on the course.

Now, he doesn't feel any pain while walking with his forever bride by his side.

Dr. Ali looks to expand the program to other hospitals in the near future.

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