A guest column by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, exclusive to KevinMD.
Recent data from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has shown a sharp increase in drug-related overdoses attributed to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, deepening the tragedies of the already challenged opioid epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic.
Unraveling the snowball effect of these public health challenges will require a unified, multistakeholder strategy to stop these combined crises from escalating, including patients, physicians, and the community. The good news – there are potential options to combat rising drug overdoses both from prescribed and illicit drugs. Still, they will require global leadership on many fronts, including policy to minimize stigma, innovation to create equitable access to new treatments, and education on treatment options.
1. Minimizing stigma and promoting mental health in the workplace. Increasingly we see a need to find solutions to address opioid use disorder and overdose in the workplace. Individuals suffering from substance use disorder need to be supported. Many workplaces are struggling to keep employees working due to unclear workplace policies for recovery, as well as the stigma associated with opioid and substance use disorders. Some companies are easing drug policies to encourage people to return to work, but we need to do more to address the root of the problem. In fact, the country’s second-largest employer, Amazon, did away with most drug testing; however, other companies have been less clear about workplace policies. In addition, creating workplace-ready environments that provide access to prevention and wellness programs specific to mental health and substance use disorder is necessary to get over this hurdle. Innovative solutions that allow workers to come to work and feel safe to manage their health and progress are necessary to overcome this crisis that is overwhelming our health care system.
2. Advancing innovation and research to improve equitable access to care. Advancing innovative treatment and research while providing evidence-based treatment for substance use disorder is needed in the United States and globally to improve equitable access to care. For example, rapid development and distribution of vaccines and telemedicine during COVID-19 have emerged as a potential solution to a major global pandemic. A team of researchers and I worked together during COVID-19 on a pilot study on telemedicine to address the opioid epidemic, which found that it may be a comparable platform to inpatient services in providing care for pain management and opioid use. The study results demonstrated that there was a significant relationship between a health care professionals’ perceived ability to aid in pain and opioid management (when compared with in-person treatments) with telemedicine platforms. As telemedicine becomes more prevalent, it is crucial to understand how to use virtual platforms most effectively when providing care for the opioid epidemic.
3. Increasing communication on safe drug use and harm reduction strategies. We also need public health communication on the safe use of drugs that focuses on education, prevention, and advocacy policies to improve health, as put forward by public health organizations and multi-stakeholder groups and task force organizations. It is important to educate the public on an overdose’s basic signs and symptoms, treatment with emergency medications, harm reduction strategies, and basic life support to save lives in emergencies in public settings or the workplace. Through multistakeholder involvement with the Milken Institute Center for Public Health, we have found that when health care and community organizations work closely together to communicate and safely promote opioid education and prevention solutions, we can help address the stigma and potentially improve workplace safety and culture.
Ultimately, empowering our communities devastated by the continued injuries of the global crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and opioid epidemic is critical to prevent further impact in hospitals, the workplace, and our communities. Treating the accelerated impact of these combined events requires a long-term commitment from everyone to improve the future of our global health.
Anita Gupta is an anesthesiologist.
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