LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Prescriptions for narcotic painkillers have surged in recent years. Abuse of the drugs, including fatal overdoses, has risen, too. Doctors and patients are grappling with how to balance the need for pain relief with the potential for trouble. Judy Foreman wrote a book called "A Nation in Pain." She summed up the dilemma to WEEKEND EDITION Scott Simon in April.
JUDY FOREMAN: We haven't been able to really ever get it right, in my opinion. And it's really been very tough on pain patients who legitimately need the medications. And at the same time, the more people were inclined to or feel they need to are abusing them. So it's colliding epidemics.
NEARY: How do Americans see this issue? NPR and its partner Truven Health Analytics conducted a nationwide poll to find out. And Scott Hensley, the host of NPR's Shots blog, is here to talk about the results. Welcome to the program, Scott.
SCOTT HENSLEY, BYLINE: Thanks, Lynn. Great to be here.
NEARY: So what were you trying to find out with this poll?
HENSLEY: There's been a lot of media coverage in the past couple of years about this painkiller dilemma. There's been a real public health push to make doctors and patients more thoughtful about when to use these drugs. Overdose deaths quadrupled since the late 1990s. And we really wanted to find out whether these colliding epidemics, as Judy Foreman calls them, were changing people's attitudes toward the painkillers. Were they fearful of taking them - fearful of addiction or side effects?
NEARY: And what did the poll find out?
HENSLEY: Well, I was a little bit surprised that only about a third of the people who had taken narcotic painkillers that are opioids said that they had any concerns about them. And the concerns about the drugs was just a tiny bit lower for people who hadn't taken them. Overall, the people were most afraid of becoming addicted. The other issue was side effects like sleepiness, constipation, nausea.
NEARY: Are these kinds of concerns leading people to avoid taking painkillers?
HENSLEY: We tried to find out about that by asking whether in fact people had questioned or refused a prescription from a doctor. About a quarter of people had, which you know is not insignificant. But when we asked the same question back in 2011, we got about the same response. So it hasn't changed that much.
NEARY: There are people who really need these painkillers despite the problems with them. So how much do people who are taking painkillers really know about them?
HENSLEY: Well, one thing we found out in the poll was that most Americans do have experience with these drugs. Half of the respondents to the survey said that at some point in their lives, they had taken these drugs. The most common reason was they had some kind of temporary pain, something like a sprained ankle or maybe a dental problem. And then about 1 in 5 said that they had taken the drugs for some chronic pain. And that 20 percent is where the conflict between the need for pain relief and the potential for abuse or addiction is the greatest.
NEARY: And did the poll ask about people who need these drugs for really severe pain?
HENSLEY: Well, what we did ask was how people felt about some new painkillers that are even stronger. So there's one called Zohyrdo, which the FDA recently approved. And we wondered - well, do people see these in a different light because of the concerns? The majority of people said that it was the right thing to have those drugs available for people who need them.
NEARY: Scott Hensley is the host of NPR's Shots blog. Thanks for being with us, Scott.
HENSLEY: Thank you, Lynn.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.