Changemakers: Changing minds is at the heart of curbing heroin crisis

Editor's note: Changemakers is part of a continuing series of stories and columns about people and places fostering change in our communities. This year, we’re focusing exclusively on those Changemakers who work hard every day to reverse the toll the heroin epidemic is having across our region.

CINCINNATI -- Is it possible that thousands of Tri-State residents are suffering from a serious brain disorder that if left untreated is potentially fatal and enormously costly for the local communities where they live?

It’s not just possible, it’s the reality ushered in by the heroin epidemic, says Dr. Navdeep Kang, who leads Mercy Health’s Behavioral Health Institute.

Changing the way communities think about the heroin crisis, he said, will have a significant impact on how well leaders are able to address it.

“A lot of times, we all feel like we’re spending all of this time and money on this problem without a clear vision for the outcome,” Kang said. “Addiction is a brain disorder that can be treated. We have the tools to address this. We have medications and therapies that can have a sustainable impact. There is hope.”

At Mercy Health, Kang is leading the charge to transform the way the health system – Ohio’s largest -- approaches behavioral health care.

“If someone were to come to the hospital on a Saturday at midnight with chest pain, there would be an immediate response and seamless level of care provided to them,” he said. “Do we do the same for those who want help with their addiction and substance abuse disorder? Historically, no. That’s what we’re building out at Mercy to make sure someone has seamless care for their mind, body and spirit.”

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The impact of his work extends far beyond the health system’s walls and is saving lives and changing minds in local communities hit hardest by the heroin scourge.

“They’re in the community, they’re coming to community meetings and their message has been, 'We want to help,’” said Gregg Pieples, executive director of the Clermont County Recovery Center, an outpatient addiction treatment center.

Redefining behavioral health

Historically, medical professionals have treated behavioral health separately from other medical practices, Dr. Kang said.

“I think that comes from the stigma associated with addiction – that these conditions should be kept secret,” he said. “But I think every patient is a behavioral health patient. Well all have brains. We all have bodies. And our behavior often impacts our health.”

Blending behavioral health care and its programs into all facets of Mercy’s operations have been at the center of Kang’s work since stepping on three years ago.

Over the last year, 12 psychiatrists have been added to work across the Mercy Health’s primary care practices. Nurses and doctors at Mercy Health’s Clermont Hospital, where Dr. Kang is based, have been trained on protocols to screen patients for various mental health conditions, including addiction.

“It’s all about making the experience as seamless as possible for our patients,” he said. “The idea is that if you go to your primary are doctor for your check-up, or you’re here with us for any other reason and something comes up related to behavioral health – we can make a connection for you right then.”

Throughout their treatment, patients work with the same team of doctors, nurses and therapists throughout every level of care, he said.

“If you have the same team, then it’s easier to have a good relationship and the patient feels safer,” he said.

Community collaboration is critical

Of the nearly 8,000 screenings, more than 300 patients have been referred to Mercy’s programs or local treatment programs, according to Mercy.

Having same-day access to treatment options is critical, Dr. Kang said.

“If someone is ready to have the conversation about treatment – no matter what part of the hospital they are in – we can make that connection for them right now,” he said.

That’s possible in large part because of Mercy’s collaborations with local treatment providers, including Clermont Recovery Center.

Mercy Health’s Clermont Hospital and the center have resided as neighbors along Hospital Drive in Batavia. But like too many neighbors, they rarely chatted with each other, the center’s executive director Pieples said.

“Over the years there have been efforts to work together that have fizzled out, but it’s really been since Dr. Kang arrived that we’ve seen the commitment from Mercy to make this work,” he said.

Mercy Clermont patients who are ready to enter treatment programs for opioids or other addictions can undergo medically assisted detox through newly created programs at the hospital.

During that time, they’re visited by peer counselors from Clermont Recovery Center, who will speak to them about the next steps of their treatment program.

“Their group is comprised of counselors who are trained to help people make that next step with is so critical,” he said. “We know we can’t do this work unless we have a seamless transition – so that the same day they’re discharged from the hospital they’re able to get to that next level of care.”

But the relationship has become deeper than patient referrals and interventions, Pieples said.

This month, a team of outreach workers from Clermont Recovery Center met with 60 Mercy  Health physicians and nurses to talk about “language,” Pieples said.

“They understand that there is a bias in language – and calling someone addict versus and active user matters to the patient,” he said. “They’re eager to teach that bedside manner, because more and more of their beds are being filled up by active user, and they want their team to have the right language and understanding of the disease so they can have an impact.”

Looking forward, Dr. Kang is working to take the programs he’s helped craft at Mercy Clermont to the health systems seven other area hospitals. 

“We want our response to be much broader, which means we’ll need more community partners across Cincinnati,” he said. “I think that as we  -- as a community -- better coordinate our response and more people recognize substance abuse disorders as real disorders, well see the impact begin to curve in the right directions.”

Lisa Bernard-Kuhn is an investigative reporter covering issues important to our community. You can reach her at lisa.bernard-kuhn@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bernardkuhn.

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