America's Newest Epidemic


Last month, the Obama administration announced that they are taking steps to combat America’s newest epidemic: opioid addiction. During an impassioned speech at a community forum in Charleston, West Virginia, an area at the center of the America’s opiate crisis, President Obama outlined new policies to both reduce prescriptions of opiate painkillers, a precursor for most drug abuse, and increase access to drug treatment.


(Image Source: Pain Killer Addiction)

The administration’s move came after calls for broader efforts to combat heroin use and drug overdose, both of which have increased dramatically in the recent years. In fact, individuals who reported heroine dependence or use within the past year rose nearly 150 percent from 2007 to more than 500,000 in 2013, and deaths caused by heroin nearly quadrupled during the past decade. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, opioid overdose deaths have increased from 4.5 to 7.8 per 100,000 people from 2003 to 2013, making heroin a more common killer than car accidents.

Despite the high number of overdoses, sadly, many with addiction fail to receive the help they deserve and require. A study recently published in JAMA found that in the past 10 years only one-sixth of all people with opioid addictions actually received treatment. While some individuals refuse treatment due to the stigma associated with being an “addict,” the greater barriers to care include overcrowded treatment facilities, high cost of care, and reimbursement rejections from insurance companies. Further, those who start receiving care may stop because their care is not coordinated, the facility they chose does not have sufficient drug-treatment programs, or they lack the social support system that is necessary to remain healthy.

According to addiction specialists at Harvard-affiliated hospitals, curbing opioid addiction requires a “multilayered approach with medication, self-help, counseling, and family support.” Providers have had positive results to treating addiction when a collaborative and coordinated effort is deployed. For example, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, when a patient who is using opiates checks into the hospital for any reason, a dedicated team, including addiction physicians, a physiatrist and a social worker are called to begin treatment immediately. The team connects the patient with outpatient treatment and community groups to aid in treatment after hospitalization. While other hospitals have launched similar programs, there is significant opportunity to implement collaborative models across various health facilities. 

People who seek help need access to care. To successfully address addiction, a comprehensive approach combining clinical evidence-based care and a sound social support system is required. This collaborative approach is a key to reducing the cost of care, generating positive health outcomes and making progress against America’s newest epidemic.

Topics: healthcare delivery social determinants of health

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