Dr. Travis Stork and “The Doctors” Tackle the Opioid Epidemic

By Paul Fuhr 10/16/17

“There’s a pharmaceutical company [that] had some officers who got charged because they were making money by literally getting people addicted to opiates.”

Dr.Travis Stork from television show The Doctors
The long-lasting television show on health and medicine is now taking on America's opioid epidemic Photo via Phil Konstantin/Wikimedia

In an age of endless digital streaming, near-infinite viewing options, and nanosecond attention spans, we’re light-years past the point of information overload. Because of that, countless TV shows come and go without warning or fanfare, disappearing as quickly as they came—and no one notices. There’s always something new waiting in the wings.

That’s what makes The Doctors something of an institution—it’s as noteworthy for its longevity as it is uniquely worthwhile programming. For nearly an entire decade, Dr. Travis Stork has scrubbed in as the host of the stalwart syndicated talk show—a series that features medical professionals who answer questions on health and medical issues, while hosting guests who share their stories. And it’s that formula that has helped power The Doctors into Season 10, a remarkable feat for any television series—let alone one in an environment of instant gratification.

Still, Dr. Stork isn’t sitting back to celebrate the occasion so much as he’s trying to make a genuine difference. In the show’s landmark tenth season, The Doctors is launching an ambitious season-long series chronicling America’s opioid epidemic.

The United States of Addiction aims to approach the crisis from every possible angle: meeting with law enforcement officials and legislators, welcoming guests who’ve been hit hard by the epidemic, sorting through grim statistics, and visiting particularly hard-hit areas across the country, including opioid-ravaged Ohio.

“[The series is] an attempt to shine a light on the issue and educate a broader audience to the problem,” one of the show’s producers explained. And speaking of the problem itself, Dr. Stork remains as surprised as anyone that it’s exploded to the degree that it has.

“I don’t want to say I was prescient, but I could tell this wasn’t really on the radar of most doctors ten years ago,” he said, adding “I will say that I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted ten years ago that it would’ve been at this stage a decade later.” Although “many of us always knew there were certain doctors who were pretty loose with the prescription pad when it came to prescribing opiates.”

“The number of prescriptions still being written, though… well, when I saw those stats, it floored me to think that that many prescriptions are still being written for those highly addictive opiates,” Dr. Stork said.

The opioid epidemic, however, is unusual in its ability to be everywhere—and absolutely nowhere—all at once. Despite all the headlines and news alerts and series like “The United States of Addiction,” it’s amazing how quickly the epidemic vanishes. In fact, that’s part of the drug’s insidious power.

“I’ve always said our society has a wonderful ability to ignore things they don’t want to deal with—especially if you’re not directly affected by it through a family member. If you’re not a physician like me or an individual who works in law enforcement or the court systems, it’s easy to read the headlines. But do those [statistics] really mean anything to you?”

And it’s true. You can only absorb so many of the details from the stories before they start to bleed into one addiction-addled mess where it’s impossible to tell what things are supposed to mean. You think you know everything there is to know about the epidemic, only to discover there are dozens of wrinkles you never considered. Things are terrible, yes, but just how terrible are they?

More than that, Stork notes that people often think: “This is happening to other types of people. Not me. Not my friends. Not my family,” he said. “And sometimes this is happening in families and family members are unaware of it until it’s too late. People don’t see what they don’t want to see.”

The way Stork describes addiction isn’t how someone describes a disease—he details it like it’s a sandstorm that’s constantly changing direction on the people who are lost in it.

“A lot of what the drug dealers get is adulterated now. So people may think they’re taking a certain amount of an opiate and they’re getting a completely different amount and a completely differently formulation,” he said. “As we’ve talked about on the show, dealers don’t care if you live or die.”

When Dr. Stork speaks, you can hear that he hasn’t lost sight that there are lives, many hard-fought, behind the voices he welcomes onto the stage. To him, people with addictions deserve as much help as anyone, if not more.

“It’s not about addicts having a lack of character or a personal strength. It’s easy to point fingers and blame people who take opiates and get addicted as opposed to (and I’ll say it) blaming the health care system, which gives a lot of these people their first exposure to opiates,” he said. “People who have never been exposed to opiates probably don’t realize how addicted they can be become quickly.” Stork warns against demonizing opioids across the board: “Look, there’s still a place for opiates to treat pain. For some people, they do have value in a proper treatment setting.”

He also zeroes criticism in on the incentive structures around pharmaceutical companies getting rich off people’s addictions. “There’s a pharmaceutical company we just profiled [on the show] and they had some officers who got charged because they were making money by literally getting people addicted to opiates,” he said.

While the opioid epidemic is the current Sturm und Drang of one community after the next—grim statistics followed by obituaries and sad-faced features—Dr. Stork does, however, see some glimmers of hope in it all.

“Physician awareness has changed, without a doubt,” he says. “There were a lot of physicians on the front lines of building this epidemic and now it’s about cracking down on all of that unscrupulousness.” Once the pendulum swings away from money-driven motives, he says, the next steps are to focus on changing the way medicines are prescribed.

“We need to change the length of dosing. There’s a new law in Ohio where certain pharmacies are only giving prescriptions for seven days,” he acknowledges. “Most states now have a registry so that they can keep track and don’t become part of the problem. That wasn’t in place a decade ago. There just wasn’t any to know if you were sending someone down a path of addiction. And this isn’t a change most people see, but it’s a really important change.”

The past ten seasons of The Doctors could make Dr. Stork numb, if not callous, to it all, but when pressed on the subject, he admits that it all still deeply affects him.

“We’ve followed a lot of individuals on our show. Some of them have gotten help and done great. But we’ve also actually lost a lot of guests,” he said quietly. “They’ve been on our stage. I’ve been to their hometowns to visit them. And that part really hit home for me. It showed me how devastating and how difficult it is to overcome the addiction,” he said. “It’s been a unique thing for me. For someone like me who’s an ER doctor, you might be treating an overdose, but it’s not the place for rehabilitation. It’s not the place for getting to know someone who’s dealing with the crisis.”

In turn, one of the things The Doctors has done beautifully and simply is to personalize the scourge of addiction so that guests, physicians and viewers alike can see what it actually looks like.

And still, no matter how popular The Doctors is, Dr. Stork isn’t blind to what can and cannot be accomplished. He knows the epidemic is more overwhelming than it is winnable.

“I have to go, ‘Okay,’” he exhaled, “‘One person at a time.’” You have to see the number of people who’ve been on our show who’ve been able to get off opiates and this has become their life’s passion: to help others do the same. If we can turn the tide there, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll see legitimate progress.”

Still, living somewhere like Ohio, with its many pockets of drug-ravaged, economically-blighted communities, makes progress almost impossible to see.

“I could sit here and tell you why I think Ohio is Ground Zero,” he said of the much-maligned state, “but the truth is, I don’t know. It’s easy to say doctors in Ohio prescribe more opiates or that the drug dealers maybe became aware they could make more money easily there, but there’s no rhyme or reason for it.” And Ohio isn’t alone. Dr. Stork counts off West Virginia and Michigan as other examples.

While the biggest aim of “The United States of Addiction” is to raise awareness, it’s also to “put pressure on all the elements of this crisis,” he insisted. Stork believes that it’s crucial to pressure “the health care system, the physicians so there’s better prescribing practices, the ruling bodies of our country so there’s better resources available to fight the crisis” and, more than anything, remind people that the opioid crisis isn’t going away.

“We’re in the midst of this,” he said. “It hasn’t disappeared just because you don’t have someone in your immediate family dealing with it.”

As such, The Doctors becomes more than just a television show—it becomes an important part of our culture. With Dr. Stork at the helm, the show continues to take the time to focus deeply on a subject, slowly peel back issues through intelligent conversations, and respect its viewers enough to offer them the opportunity to draw their own conclusions.

This season, though, the series seems poised to do something that won’t just break its own formula—it could very well break expectations and, in the process, save lives.

Look for Fix columnist Amy Dresner on an upcoming episode of The Doctors!

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.