The Spirit of Cooperation: Critical to Fighting the Opioid Epidemic

The Spirit of Cooperation: Critical to Fighting the Opioid Epidemic
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The opioid epidemic is spiraling into a seemingly uncontrollable public health problem. Skyrocketing opioid overdose rates have translated into tragic consequences for thousands of people and their families. Unfortunately, efforts to stem the tide of overdose deaths have been largely ineffectual, but an innovative program in New Mexico offers hope for a solution.

In my rural Southwestern state – the fifth largest in land area – UNM Health Sciences Center found that collaboration is essential to managing the opioid crisis. Health care providers, federal prosecutors, first responders and federal, state and local law enforcement have crafted an approach that has already saved 70 lives since 2016, according to the UNM Health Sciences Center reports. The good news is this model can easily be replicated in other states.

Our approach is based on four key steps:

  1. Education – Everyone involved in the chain of events that ultimately leads to access of opioids deserves up-to-date information and training to understand the behaviors and predispositions of the addicted. Several groups at the University of New Mexico provide a comprehensive continuing education program for opioid prescribers based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols for opioid prescribing, managing duration and dosage and assessing harms of use. Hundreds have already participated in this educational effort, which has led to a direct reduction in the number of opioid prescriptions written statewide as reported by UNM Health Sciences clinics. The New Mexico Department of Public Health announced that the amount of opioids prescribed dropped 5 percent in the first quarter of 2017 compared to last year.
  2.  Access – People who have access to opioids also need medication that will reverse an accidental or intentional overdose. To address this issue in New Mexico, we pushed for legislation to support a “dual prescription program,” which requires pharmacists to issue naloxone (a drug that reverses overdoses), with each opioid prescription.
  3. Legislation – Efforts to curb opioid abuse should become ingrained in the fabric of our communities through legislative changes. That’s why we also supported legislation requiring the distribution of naloxone kits to those likely to encounter someone experiencing an overdose or those in high-risk populations. This piece of legislation required law enforcement officers, inmates being discharged from custody and patients in drug treatment programs to all have kits.
  4. Training – First responders deserve appropriate training to deal with opioid overdoses. In New Mexico, state and local law officers are trained to respond collaboratively to a suspected overdose and administer naloxone, if needed. This is spurred through a united understanding of how and when to use naloxone when arriving on a scene.

The good news is our plan to reverse opioid overdose deaths in New Mexico is working. As a pathologist and fellow of the College of American Pathologists, I know that collaboration within the medical system improves patient outcomes. Extending that spirit throughout the community will provide us with critical leverage and improve the odds of overcoming the opioid addiction crisis.

Richard Larson, MD, PhD, FCAP is the Executive Vice Chancellor and Vice Chancellor for Research at the UNM Health Sciences Center.

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