SALT LAKE CITY — A year and a half ago, Kelly Howard cried as she read Intermountain Healthcare's goal to cut opioid prescriptions by 40 percent in 2018.
"Finally some noise on the subject," she recalled thinking to herself.
Howard's son, Billy Perkins, died in 2014 from an opioid overdose. Perkins, 26, wasn't prescribed opioids at the time of his death but instead bought the drugs from friends.
"I thought for sure my son would never touch drugs or alcohol," she said. "But once he got on the roller coaster he just couldn't get off."
She praised the hospital Tuesday for almost hitting its goal and drawing attention to the serious issue.
"Well done, Intermountain Healthcare," she said. "Well done physicians and providers for their commitment to reducing opioid prescriptions. You did it."
Intermountain Healthcare reduced the number of opiate tablets prescribed to patients in acute pain by 3.8 million in 2018, the hospital announced Tuesday at a news conference.
Acute pain is defined as short-term pain that typically accompanies events like broken bones or surgery.
In August 2017 the hospital announced its lofty goal to cut opioid prescriptions by 40 percent in 2018. The hospital missed its goal, but still achieved a 30 percent cut — something to be proud of, according to Lisa Nichols, associate vice president of community health.
"I think that the conversation about the dangers of opioids has really opened up and the conversation about addiction and the willingness of people to seek help has really changed," she said. "People are becoming much more aware and I think more sensitive."
She said the hospital is now focused on decreasing that number by 5 percent this year. According to the Department of Health, Utah was one of only nine states nationwide to observe a decrease in opioid overdose deaths from 2016 to 2017.
Dr. David Hasleton, Intermountain Health's chief medical officer, said creating a dialogue between patients and physicians is key in addressing the epidemic.
"It affects patients, it affects families," he said. "It's opened up the door that they can ask questions to us now.
Another important piece, he said, is creating a dialogue between physicians.
"It's up to us to take the lead to figure out how to do it better," he said. "To treat patients appropriately but really to improve the health of the community and stop this epidemic."
Howard said her son tried to get off drugs many times and she doesn't know how long he struggled with addiction before telling her about it roughly two years before his death.
"So much of this is about stigma, about being embarrassed or ashamed or not knowing where to get resources," Nichols said.
Doug Thomas, director of the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, also spoke at the conference.
"The Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health is committed to working on data-driven approaches that will reduce the impact of prescription drugs and their misuse in our communities," he said. "And finding ways that we can get more treatment available to those who have been impacted by this."
Thomas talked about the success of the Use Only As Directed campaign, as well as Intermountain Healthcare's mission to address the epidemic.
"Because of this effort more of our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, and our friends and our family are alive today," he said.
Anna Fondario, program manager at the Utah Department of Health, noted the success of the Utah Coalition for Opioid Overdose Prevention, which is headed by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
"The opioid epidemic and its serious consequences are well-known in Utah and a comprehensive multi-agency effort is necessary to decrease overdose deaths," she said.
For people with opioid prescriptions, Nichols noted it’s important to properly dispose of medication at designated drop boxes and to keep medication secure so others without prescriptions can’t access it.Comment on this story
“We really don’t want patients to be in pain,” she said.
Addiction can happen to anyone, Howard said. Before her son became addicted to opiates, she said he was an avid reader, loved music and football, and was a proud University of Utah student.
"I don't want him to be forgotten," she said. "I don't want any of those sons, daughters, family members, friends to be forgotten. These were once very, very viable people who had wonderful lives, I don't think any of them chose to be this way and I just want him to be remembered."