(WHTM) — Opioid overdose deaths have risen in the last few years. In 2020, the drugs killed more than 4,000 people in Pennsylvania alone. One doctor is trying to tackle the epidemic by getting healthcare professionals involved in the fight.

Dr. Asif Ilyas says opioid addiction can often start with prescription painkillers, so he wanted to give current — and future — medical professionals other ways to treat pain.

“We need opioids to do a lot of the things that we do, but there’s ways to use it safely,” he said.

Ilyas, an orthopedic surgeon, said his medical training and the rise of the opioid epidemic happened at the same time.

“I started to see the problems related to the opioid crisis with opioid addiction, opioid abuse and unfortunately, opioid related deaths,” he said.

He also started to see health care’s role in the crisis.

“We learned that we’re really as prescribers just over prescribing inadvertently,” he said.

This led to Ilyas’ work with the Rothman Opioid Foundation — launched in 2020 — where he is president. Part of the foundation’s mission is educating medical professionals on other ways to treat pain.

“If you can manage pain better and rely less on opioids, there’s gonna be less dependency and subsequently less addiction and abuse,” Ilyas said.

Ilyas said better pain management involves a combination of things, from simple measures like ice to over-the-counter and prescription medications. Pain management often still includes small amounts of opioids, but Ilyas said they become a smaller part of the puzzle.

He said research shows this method is working.

“In Pennsylvania alone, we’re seeing a 30 to 40 percent reduction in prescribing of opioids over the past few years,” he said.

However, Ilyas wanted to start educating medical professionals earlier, while they are still in school. He created a free curriculum on opioids and pain management and put it online.

“Medical schools anywhere can access this and give it to their medical students, and future MDs and DOs can take this and learn from it,” he said.

The course teaches people how to treat different types of pain by giving them real scenarios they could face. Ilyas said there is also a curriculum tailored to nurses and physician assistants.

“If we can educate our future prescribers effectively now, you can imagine how that extrapolates over time to more conscientious prescribing as they enter their careers,” he said.

Ilyas is also working on creating a course for dental students with scenarios specific to their field. He hopes to release that in late 2023 or early 2024.

Ilyas also while better pain management is yielding results, health care cannot solve the epidemic by itself.

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“What we’re not seeing is a subsequent decrease in opioid-related deaths in the country, and that’s a big problem,” he said.

Ilyas said the rise of drugs laced with fentanyl, and more recently, an animal tranquilizer called xylazine, is a big reason for deaths remaining constant — or rising. Because of that, Ilyas said government and law enforcement are critical partners in the mission to end the crisis.