Solving the Opioid Crisis Won’t Be “Cheap, Quick, or Easy”

Solving the Opioid Crisis Won't Be "Cheap, Quick, or Easy" Lynn R Webster, MD, @lynnrwebstermd

“Last Week Tonight” is a late-night television show that satirizes the news. Therefore, you probably wouldn’t expect the show’s host, John Oliver, to make the news. Yet he did (see Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek, Slate, and more) when he did a segment about the opioid crisis.

Using Humor to Discuss the Opioid Crisis

Oliver tackled a difficult topic. He used humor to discuss the controversy of opioids, addiction, and overdoses. Of course, Oliver is not a physician or a scientist, so fact-checkers might have expected to find errors in his broadcast. However, in my opinion, his content was largely accurate and, therefore, I believe that every American should see the video.

In some ways, John Oliver’s segment on opioids is a Rorschach test. We read our own beliefs in Oliver’s remarks as if his words were ink blots.

Those who feel Pharma is Satan will feel infuriated when Oliver mentions Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin. But those who understand Pharma’s role in providing treatments for people in pain will be reminded that Purdue paid over $600 million in fines for its wrongdoing, and has moved on.

Many may see support for severely restricting opioids in John Oliver’s remarks. Others will hear that opioids are still the most effective treatment for pain, but the following statement (as reported by Rolling Stone) is what I hope will resonate most powerfully with viewers:

‘There is not one simple answer here,’ he said. ‘Not all opioid addicts will respond to the same treatments, and not all people in pain will find relief from alternative therapies. This is going to take a massive effort and a significant investment. It won’t be cheap, it won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy.’ “

“It Won’t Be Cheap, Quick, or Easy” 

No, solving the opioid crisis won’t be cheap. It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy. Part of the reason opioid prescriptions are still so widespread is that they are a quick fix. And, as Oliver points out, opioids do work for some people — although he dismisses the claim that only a small percentage of opioid users become addicted to them. Also, he did not make clear that most of the problems with opioids occur with non-medical use of opioids.

There are alternative treatments to pain, such as physical therapy and cognitive therapy, but these aren’t widely available, especially in rural areas. As Oliver jokingly points out, those who live in rural areas have a better chance of encountering a Waffle House than they do of finding mindfulness meditation practitioners. This addresses a serious barrier to improved outcomes without opioids. Oliver touched on the lack of insurance coverage for alternative therapies as part of the problem, but he could have pursued that topic more aggressively.

Broad Public Interest in the Opioid Crisis

The video has gone viral. This underscores the broad public interest in the opioid crisis. There is a plethora of news on the opioid crisis, but there’s little out there that addresses the complexity of the problem or helps the general public to understand it. Oliver is one of the few in the media who have covered this difficult topic and acknowledged the dual challenges society faces: opioid abuse and chronic pain.

And the fact that he does it with intelligence and wit is refreshing.


Purchase my book, The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us (available on Amazon), or read a free excerpt here.

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Copyright 2016, Lynn Webster, MD


  1. Kenneth Mckenna on October 30, 2016 at 8:45 am

    God for John Oliver. Thanks for sharing this Dr. Webster. Mixing humor with the seriousness of the issue makes it all easier to digest. A spoon full of honey type thing. So many issues go hand in hand with all this. Some issues are not even being discussed or obvious to some. The substitute drugs being prescribed in place of opioids are becoming a crisis of their own. However I don’t see anyone looking at this issue. Sure, many are being denied adequate pain meds but theirs a whole other populous being given drugs that are supposed to be none addictive and safe. But with the opioid scare these drugs are being prescribed way to much. Drugs like tramadol, NSAIDs, pregablin,Neurontin, just to mention a few. Research will show there are many more being used as a substitute for opioids. This is not helping the current opioid crisis but creating a crisis onto itself.

  2. Lana Kirby on November 1, 2016 at 7:34 am

    I was extremely irritated by this video. The “good” points that he made were just slid in to his overall message that opioids are bad and to to an entire comedy routine on the issue was insulting at best. This is a very serious issue and way too controversial to base an entire comedy skit off it. He didn’t mention the deaths that were occurring when physicians discharge patients for no reason at all … not because of abuse or diversion, or because the patient is improving … but because of the scare tactics used by the DEA when visiting doctor’s offices with ultimatums. There was also no mention of the rise of suicides in pain patients due to the significant decline in functioning and accompanying depression from the loss of ability to function. Pain management is a very serious problem right now, but one that is being misrepresented to Americans whose only source of information is biased media, such as the Town Hall meeting put on by CNN in May wherein Dr. Sanja Gupta reported false statistics that opioid overdoses were the #1 cause of death in America. Even the CDC wouldn’t buy that lie. They reported the false statistics and CNN did a retraction. How many people saw the retraction? You won’t unless you look for it. In this comedy skit, yes, there were a few bits of truth that were thrown in as side notes while he was building to his “funny” parts, but were sparse and not truly representative of the importance of those comments. As a patient advocate, I hear from real people every day who are declining at a rapid rate of speed and have no viable options. With this in mind, it’s hard for me to find a lot of humor in this comedy skit. People who are not affected will walk away laughing hysterically about a situation which is not funny on any level. This only adds to an already impossible situation; but only for those who are affected. To the rest of the world, thanks to media such as this, chronic pain patients are nothing but addicts in disguise.

  3. opioid treatment st george on December 7, 2016 at 12:42 am

    Great tips here which are so needed. Thanks so much for the information Dr. Webster.

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