We’re out of euphemisms at this point: national emergency, addiction crisis, drug epidemic, “a 9/11 every three weeks.” But there’s no mistaking that we’re in the midst of the biggest drug epidemic to ever hit our country – and the death toll is rising.
The federal government estimates that over 600,000 Americans have heroin-associated opioid use disorder. The wave of death we’ve already experienced – losses over the next decade on par with the Civil War, or over half a million Americans – is unprecedented. Make no mistake: Ohio is at the center of this. And whether we all know it or not, Cincinnati is an epicenter community.
Worse yet, these tragedies do not exist in a vacuum. They leave broken families, shattered dreams and devastated communities in their wake. Only more shocking than the toll itself is the scale of our collective inaction.
Answers can be hard to come by in an unprecedented public health crisis. While translating science into practice tends to take at least 10 years, literature about how to treat opioid use disorder has existed for decades. Demonstrably effective methods to address a mortality crisis like ours have been shared from around the world.
What’s clear is we have to move beyond our fragmented approach. And everyone has a role to play.
In Cincinnati, we had to break down the siloed ways the health care system treats addiction. Mercy Health started by leaving stigma and bias at the door. We made a concerted effort to approach people with substance use disorders using the same methods we use when addressing patients with any other chronic, relapsing medical conditions – by standardizing compassionate care, collaborating with specialists, and ensuring rapid access to comprehensive, quality treatment programs. And we formed the Addiction Treatment Collaborative.
A cultural shift is afoot in health care. While there still aren’t national training standards and requirements around addiction medicine in medical school, residency and continuing education, we decided we could no longer treat people with these conditions the way health care has in the past. The urgency is too great and the costs of inaction too severe. To that end, we’ve trained ourselves to adopt addiction treatment into the general medical setting across the Mercy Health system – in our emergency rooms, in our hospitals and in our primary care clinics.
We have a long way to go to ensure these methods are universally embraced across our community. We need the other hospital systems at the table. And an even more refined, community-level understanding of what comprises quality addiction treatment. The coordinated approach taken by over a dozen organizations in our community has produced a significant drop in mortality to start 2018. Flooding our community with Narcan, ensuring immediate access to addiction treatment, and integrating all five Mercy Health hospitals into the continuum of addiction care with novel clinical protocols was just the start.
The bipartisan legislation Congress recently sent to President Donald Trump’s desk includes many ideas that will remove barriers to our progress. While not truly transformative, it is a meaningful start to real change in this space. And it is a collaborative success at a time when such achievements feel impossible.
Once this is signed, legislators should seek to build on this new foundation by considering the dozens of ideas still on the table. Taking these actions will save American lives. Legislators in both houses can’t take their foot off the gas – they need to continue working on the next level of comprehensive reform in this space to more fully address easy access to treatment.
But government alone isn’t the answer. Business owners can play a major role in the recovery process once a patient has stabilized in treatment and is ready to get their life back. Locally, innovative approaches to integrate folks back into the workforce have already produced positive results.
And if you’re anyone – an individual, a faith-based organization, a community group – who has been touched by this crisis and wants to help, do you know how to get engaged?
Consider helping a friend or loved one navigate the system. Familiarize yourself with FindLocalTreatment.com to help people find accredited addiction treatment available immediately here in town. Carry and learn to administer Narcan. Remember that addiction is not a moral failing but a disease that warrants a health care response. These are some suggestions on how you help. We could use your energy and compassion.
What will you say when the next generation asks what we did during this moment of national emergency? When our children are dealing with the ripple effects of this crisis and looking to us for an understanding of how we all got here in the first place? We honestly won’t have much in the way of excuses. The science was there. The ideas were shared. Why did we wait to put them into practice?