female nurse holding tablet computer

2020 was a dramatic year. The entire health care system and much of the world transformed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. But while people worked to adjust to life in a pandemic, the opioid crisis continued to worsen in the background. The death rate from overdose is increasing and the treatment of patients with substance use disorder needs to be transformed.

Last year there were 93,331 Americans who died of an overdose – an increase of 27% from the prior year. Many individuals with substance use disorder find themselves in hospital emergency departments due to overdose or another complication of drug use. These encounters are important opportunities to engage the patient in life-saving treatment, such as introducing medication for substance use disorder and linking them to care. Sadly, in most emergency departments and inpatient settings in the U.S., patients are not given this standard of care treatment. Those of us who work with substance use disorder patients see the need for a similar health care transformation to that of the pandemic, to ensure these patients have access to the lifesaving care they need.

What can the health care system do differently to reduce the number of substance use disorder patients who die?

One promising option for improving outcomes for people with substance use disorder is increasing access to medication. Just like with other chronic medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, patients with substance use disorder often end up in hospitals. This can be problematic because while patients with other chronic conditions may receive appropriate care, patients with substance use disorders are routinely denied access to standard medical treatment. Research shows individuals who received medication for their substance use disorder in the emergency department had a much higher chance of seeking addiction treatment than individuals who were denied access to medication.

The Legal Action Center recently issued an emergency report outlining the significance of the failure of many hospital emergency departments in adopting evidence-based practices to diagnose and treat substance use disorder patients, including providing options for medication. The CA Bridge program is a national leader in helping hospitals adopt substance use disorder treatment and has developed a step-by-step guide for implementation. Hospitals and health systems can make strides in bridging gaps in care by becoming educated about treatment options, seeking assistance from groups like CA Bridge and taking action to implement these options in their emergency departments.

As we look to a future that is hopefully less dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope more health care providers and hospital systems will return focus to the opioid epidemic and realize the life-saving power of addiction treatment. Without dramatic transformation in how we think about caring for patients with substance use disorder, the rise in deaths will continue in our communities.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and looking for support, or if you have a patient who would benefit from being referred to CleanSlate, please contact us. Call 833-505-HOPE or visit www.cleanslatecenters.com to find a location near you.

Stephen Popovich

Stephen Popovich, MD, Medical Director in Richmond, VA