Area hospitals ramp up work to curb opioid crisis

CINCINNATI -- The region's largest health systems are teaming to tackle the opioid crisis in ways that local leaders hope will make it easier for more residents to begin treatment. 

Emergency rooms across Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have been inundated in recent years with a spike in patients who have overdosed on potent opioids. Nearly 70 area residents are overdosing each week, local first responders have said. 

How to better care for those patients once they arrive in a local emergency room and connect them with treatment options has been a key discussion among the local health and community leaders. 

RELATED: Are our healthcare leaders doing enough to battle the heroin epidemic?

"We know there are gaps between someone being admitted to an emergency department and connecting them with treatment. Too many times people are just leaving the ED," said Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus. She leads the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition and has championed the call for a regional approach for residents battling addiction that's focused on healthcare solutions. "It takes the entire system to be on board to really make an impact."

The new collective strategy will go far beyond the emergency department, said Sara Bolton, the program's lead director at The Health Collaborative. The nonprofit is spearheading the new effort, which includes participation from Mercy Health, TriHealth, St. Elizabeth, The Christ Hospital Network, UC Health and Cincinnati Children's Medical Center.

Under the program, consistent protocols will be put in place when a patient arrives showing signs of addiction or drug abuse at each the health system's emergency departments and in their respective primary care doctor's offices. The effort also calls on each of the systems to share best practices and get the training needed to help more local residents better battle addiction.

"It is this kind of work that will lay the foundation for the answers that will eliminate this crisis," said Richard Lofgren, president and CEO of UC Health. "We are in this together -- our neighbors and our communities are counting on us."

More specifically, the program focuses on four key areas: 

  • Implementing an emergency department treatment protocol developed by the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition: This means that patients who arrive to an emergency department in a Cincinnati-area hospital will receive the same standard of care.
  • Expanding SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention, & Referral to Treatment) training and screenings: This standardized screening process will allow providers to more consistently and proactively identify patients struggling with substance use disorder. The goal is to enable healthcare providers to refer patients to treatment sooner and prevent them from spiraling further out of control.
  • Primary care education & training on prescribing patterns: Research has recently been published supporting more conservative use of prescription pain pills. Through the Comprehensive Primary Care Plus program facilitated through The Health Collaborative, primary care physicians across Ohio and in Northern Kentucky are receiving information and education on alternative pain treatment and best practices when prescribing pain pills to patients.
  • Increasing Medically Assisted Treatment: For providers to be able to prescribe Suboxone or other treatment options, they must attend training and become certified. Federal funding has been dedicated through the 21st Century Cures Act in part to help increase the number of providers able offer this option to their patients. The Greater Cincinnati region is working with the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services and American Society of Addiction Medicine to host regional trainings for providers.

The Health Collaborative says it's focused for now on helping each of the six participating health care systems implement the new strategies. 

"The efforts are all in varying stages at each of the health care systems, and some are a little further along than others," she said. 

Longer term, the Health Collaborative hopes to roll out the same strategies to more rural hospitals and health care systems. 

"The key for much of this work is to shift the way we think about substance abuse disorders as a community," Bolton said. "The more we know about addiction, the better we are at understanding this very much like other chronic conditions -- like diabetes or high blood pressure -- that patients need help managing."

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