America has hit a grim milestone in the long-standing drug crisis, with more drug overdose deaths over a one-year period than ever before. Between April 2020 and April 2021, more than 100,000 people lost their lives—an almost 30 percent increase from the prior year. What caused the sudden explosion? Experts say it’s a combination of issues largely spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, including disrupted medical care, increased mental health troubles, isolation, and more lethal drugs circulating on the streets.
Overwhelmingly, these overdoses involved illicitly synthesized fentanyl, one of the primary opioids driving the overdose crisis. Fentanyl has spread rapidly into other drug supplies, such as cocaine and methamphetamines. This has caused increased deaths involving drugs laced with this potent opioid.
With the number of drug overdose deaths rising with each passing year, one thing has become crystal clear: even with everything we are doing, we—healthcare providers, payers, and state and local governments—are not doing enough. One American is dying every five minutes from an overdose, yet we’ve seemingly become numb to the fact that each of those numbers represents a human life.
This begs the question, what can we, as a country, do? How can we better address and treat substance use disorder (SUD) and prevent overdose deaths from continuing to rise? Here are five things to consider during the pandemic and beyond:
1. Train physicians on how to screen for SUD
The unfortunate reality is that most doctors are ill-equipped to screen for substance use disorder. This isn’t a failure of the healthcare practitioners themselves, but rather the failure to address addiction medicine thoroughly, if at all, in medical school, residency training, and continuing education.
According to an article in The New York Times, most medical schools now offer some education about opioids, but only about 15 of 180 American programs teach addiction to include alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Additionally, the content varies from program to program, ranging from one pharmacology lecture to several weeks during a third-year clinical rotation. With so many overdose deaths per year, addiction medicine is something that should be extensively incorporated into all general medicine curriculums.
2. Make it easier to refer patients to SUD treatment
Not only do most clinicians not have knowledge about screening for SUD, but they also lack the information and resources necessary to refer SUD patients to treatment programs. Realistically, a doctor’s current approach to “taking action” involves checking a box in a patient’s electronic health record (EHR). Most healthcare providers don’t have the names of SUD or medication-assisted treatment (MAT) providers readily available, much less know if an inpatient bed is available. They simply aren’t equipped to see the referral process through to ensure their patients receive the help they need. We need to make the referral process more accessible to clinicians, streamline the process, and improve communication between medical departments.
3. Continue to make telehealth/video appointments available
During the pandemic, doctors stopped seeing patients in person in lieu of telehealth appointments via video. Even when the country reaches a state of normalcy (or close to it) regarding COVID-19 cases, it’s important for clinicians to continue offering video appointments, as this adds another level of accessibility to those struggling with SUD.
4. Ensure that medication-assisted treatment is available
In November 2021, The White House released a model law for states to help expand access to naloxone (Narcan), which saves lives by reversing opioid overdoses. This is an encouraging sign that policymakers are moving in the right direction when it comes to addiction, but the work doesn’t stop there.
Medically-assisted treatment (MAT) needs to be available to all patients struggling with SUD. Not only that, but clinicians need to readily discuss the benefits of such treatment with SUD patients. MAT entails the use of FDA-approved medications, in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, to provide a holistic approach to the treatment of SUD. MAT has proven to be clinically effective, significantly reducing the need for inpatient detoxification services for those with SUD.
5. Reduce the stigma around asking for help
Only 10 percent of people with SUD receive treatment. While there are a number of reasons a person might not seek treatment, the stigma surrounding addiction is certainly a common one. This long-standing stigma can lead to guilt and shame, causing people to hide their addiction and shy away from getting the SUD treatment they need.
As healthcare providers, payers, and governments, we need to work to break this stigma by openly talking about it, educating others about it, and showing compassion and understanding for those struggling with SUD. After all, people with addiction need support—not scorn and shame.
Ultimately, getting more individuals into SUD treatment benefits everyone: providers, payers, government, families, and most importantly, the patient.
Connect with CHESS Health
CHESS Health works to help the public sector, payers, and healthcare providers combat the SUD crisis by providing technology that supports the addiction management and recovery lifecycle. It’s our goal to help you support SUD patients in achieving higher abstinence rates and reduced relapses, as well as lower the total cost of care.
We can get these sobering numbers trending in the other direction, but it’s going to take effort from all of us. Ready to do your part? Get in touch with us today.