Blog: Collaboration is Needed to Address the Heroin and Opioid Threat

January 6th, 2017

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by Trudy Henson with Birch Barron

As 2016 came to a close and many were focused on a year-end countdown, health officials were paying attention to a different tally: the alarming rate of drug overdose deaths, which nearly tripled between 1999 – 2014, and continued to increase for synthetic opioid deaths in the last few years. The findings, written about extensively in a CDC report, underscore the need for “intense attention and action.” But how can public health partners make that action most effective?

“Solving the heroin and opioid addiction problem will require a united effort,” says Birch Barron, CHHS Analyst and Senior Advisor to the Medical Director at Howard County Fire and Rescue. “Public health leaders must collaborate with Emergency Medical Services (EMS) responders, law enforcement agencies, hospitals, and private sector partners to tackle this problem from all angles.”

Like much of the country, Howard County, Maryland has seen a dramatic increase in the use and abuse of heroin and prescription opioids. Between 2015 and 2016, Howard County EMS saw responses to opioid-related emergencies climb by 42%, and the number of cardiac arrests as a result of heroin or opioid use has more than doubled.

In Howard County, the Health Department, Fire and Rescue, Police, and others meet regularly as part of the county-wide Overdose Prevention Task Group. “Alone, each agency sees only a small portion of the bigger picture,” says Barron, who sits on the Task Group on behalf of Howard County Fire and Rescue. “This partnership allows us to concentrate our energy and approach the opioid threat with coordination and focus.”

Task Group partners have implemented a series of collaborative initiatives in response to the growing opioid challenge. Priorities include increasing access to life-saving medication, connecting high-risk individuals to resources, and using shared data to create a common understanding of the problem.

Increased Access to Life-Saving Treatments
Naloxone is an easy-to-use medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose in seconds. Howard County has made increasing access to naloxone a top priority. Medics from Howard County Fire and Rescue train local law enforcement how to administer naloxone to unconscious patients. Many Howard County police officers carry naloxone and automated defibrillators in their vehicles, an initiative which has delivered life-saving medical support to dozens of individuals since the program’s inception. Additionally, the Howard County Health Department hosts Overdose Response Program trainings and provides naloxone free of charge to interested community members.

Improved Addiction Support and Referral to Resources
Many individuals using opioids never seek treatment even after surviving a potentially fatal overdose. Howard County’s Health Department is collaborating with area medical facilities to refer overdose patients to treatment services. The Health Department is also working with Police and EMS to allow peer recovery support staff to respond directly to opioid overdose incidents.

Creation of a Common Operating Picture
Sharing information between agencies is critical to creating a complete understanding of the opioid threat. The Overdose Prevention Task Group is working to develop a multi-agency overdose prevention database in an attempt to close the information gap. Reports generated from this database will be used by partner agencies to target interventions where they are needed the most.

Partnerships like the Overdose Prevention Task Group in Howard County are making great strides, but there is still a long way to go. Additional preventative measures—such as limiting opioid prescriptions, encouraging the development of non-addictive pain medications, and training health care providers in effective pain management—require a collaborative approach from all health care providers and stakeholders.

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