HealthTech – Managing Pain without Addiction

Using cutting edge technology to relieve pain

The healthcare industry is no stranger to technological innovation. Pharmaceutical companies, however, are a different matter entirely. Pharma has proven notoriously difficult to disrupt, which in many cases hasn’t had the best results. Prescription painkillers have been a constant subject of controversy, leading to misuse, addiction and even fatalities. Perhaps the main culprits are opioids. Unfortunately, they have some nasty side effects. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, around two million people were addicted to opioids in the US in 2015. This alarmingly high number could reflect the fivefold increase in opioid prescription since 1999. Fuelled by worrying statistics, companies are searching for ways to alleviate physical pain that don’t involve opioids. Thanks to advancements in technology, the scope for nonaddictive treatments is increasing. But how will this impact healthcare?

An Apple a day. . .
It goes without saying that opioid addiction should be avoided. Fortunately there are other pain relief medications that already exist. Ofirmev is used to treat moderate to severe pain, and Expanel is a nonnarcotic anaesthetic used during surgery. This bodes well but the drugs don’t come cheap. Expanel is the most expensive of the two at $300 per dose, whilst Ofirmev is more affordable at $35 per dose. In contrast, the opioid Vicodin costs just $5 per dose. Aside from traditional drug prescription, other options are also under development. One example is the Senza System, a spinal cord simulator that interrupts the pain signals sent between nerves and the brain. Although the device removes the need for opioids, surgery is required – which requires an anaesthetic. Now the race is on to find smaller, less intrusive options for patients that don’t come with a large price tag. Cost is clearly a daunting hurdle which could perhaps be overcome by a collaborative approach, including the involvement of resource rich tech giants. In future, other commercially available technologies could be repurposed to help patients. Virtual Reality, for instance, is already being used to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

How will pain relief technology disrupt medication?
The growing list of anti opioid painkillers will have a slow but certain impact on treatments for pain. New drugs, implants and nonintrusive tech offer more choice and freedom for patients, and greater peace of mind for the medical professionals who are well aware of the risks of addiction. This has already had an impact on regulations, with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passing new guidelines to cut opioid use. These restrictions are likely to continue, combatting the ongoing issue of affordability. However, until alternative treatments become price competitive, they will struggle to see mass adoption – especially in developing environments. As well as this, the global drugs business is incredibly well established. Chemical compounds are the most widely used form of pain relief, and medical professionals rely on them heavily. Paradoxically, opioid producing pharma companies are now selling opioids to treat opioid addiction. Legacy pharma firms are still incredibly relevant, and are unlikely to go down without a fight. Even so, other options will still pose a challenge to companies that refuse to innovate, leaving a gap in the market that both innovative startups and big tech companies could take advantage of. In short, though, the market is still incredibly young. Despite this, regulatory changes and expanding options represent the first moves towards truly transforming pain relief.

Applying cutting edge technology to painkilling medication could help to address the global opioid problem, alleviate physical pain and disrupt the way that we think about pain relief. At the same time, this could bring long awaited change to the legacy pharma industry. From a business perspective, this presents a lucrative but benevolent opportunity. Despite the many glaring problems with opioids and other painkillers, they are familiar to both medical facilities and their patients. The advocates of alternative pain relief options will have a long task ahead of them when it comes to encouraging adoption. Either way, it can’t hurt to try.

Could new pain relief options eventually kill off legacy pharma companies? Will consumers opt for new options over tried and tested drugs? Which other technologies could be repurposed for pain relief? Share your thoughts and opinions.