Responding to a national epidemic of opioid abuse, Sentara Healthcare has adopted stricter guidelines on the drugs' use, including at Sentara Albemarle Medical Center in Elizabeth City.

Opioids are powerful but addictive painkillers, and deaths involving prescription opioids have quadrupled nationwide since 1999, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has also reported prescription opioid overdoses led to more than 15,000 deaths in 2015.

Sentara detailed the guidelines in a release earlier this month. According to those guidelines, Sentara's emergency departments will not treat chronic pain with injected opioids. They also will not replace lost, stolen or destroyed opioids; patients will have to go to their doctors to get refills. Sentara also will not prescribe long-acting opioids, such as oxycodone or methadone, and will not prescribe more than 20 opioid pills.

Glen Needham, director of patient services at Sentara Albemarle, and Sentara spokeswoman Liz Vandendriessche, discussed the guidelines further in an interview Thursday. Vandendriessche said a team of Sentara officials adopted the guidelines systemwide based upon recommendations from the CDC and the American Hospital Association.

Sentara's release also notes the new guidelines are aimed at helping reduce “shopping” for prescription painkillers, inappropriate drug use, and preventing deaths and hospitalizations due to opioid abuse.

Asked if Sentara Albemarle has seen a rise in patients seeking opioids, whether for valid or illicit uses, Needham and Vandendriessche said they didn't have data on that.

Regardless, Needham said Sentara showed restraint in prescribing opioids before adopting the new guidelines. Sentara already didn't prescribe opioids for treating chronic pain – defined as pain lasting more than three months – he noted. In an example, he said if someone came into the emergency department with a broken leg, they might be administered an opioid for immediate pain relief. If they complained months later that their leg was still bothering them, then Sentara would not prescribe opioids, he said.

Needham also said that a combination of non-opioid pain relievers, generally varieties of anti-inflammatory medication, is often as effective as an opioid.

Vandendriessche also said that, starting in January, Sentara will have brochures about the new guidelines available at Sentara Albemarle and its other facilities.