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Opioid addiction, overdoses preventable through collective action, panelists say

Health, public safety officials stress importance of outreach

In observance of International Overdose Awareness Day, The Ohio State University hosted the Columbus Dispatch at the Fawcett Center for an Aug. 31 panel discussion about the opioid epidemic in central Ohio and strategies to prevent and treat addiction.

“What Is the State of the Opioid Crisis in Our Community?” was part of the Columbus Dispatch Columbus Conversation series. The event brought together medical professionals, community health advocates and public safety officials to share information and best practices to help people experiencing addiction and their families in achieving sustained recovery.

Providing effective treatment for patients who present symptoms related to substance use disorder will require a coordinated effort from health care professionals, said Dr. Emily Kauffman, an Ohio State Wexner Medical Center emergency medicine physician.

“We are trying to convince other providers – nurses, techs, aides, patient registration – that they need to care about this disorder. This is a disease just like heart disease,” Kauffman said. “This is a disease that we can intervene in. There are evidence-based treatments. We can put them on the path to recovery.”

One strategy to prevent overdoses is to distribute the overdose-recovery medicine Naloxone to potentially at-risk individuals, which Columbus police and fire personnel have done through a pilot project in recent years, said Columbus Division of Fire Capt. Matt Parrish.

“Over that period, law enforcement has saved thousands of lives and given folks thousands of chances at their recovery,” he said.

Law enforcement officers are working with hospitals and public health administrators to reduce addiction and prevent overdoses, Parrish said.  

“Where public safety fits in is in that continuum of getting folks to that next right step,” he said. “By building these partnerships, we’ve been able to get the right information to folks to do outreach and harm reduction.”

To have a lasting effect, treatment must involve a holistic approach encompassing multiple aspects of a patient’s life, from housing to education, said Dr. Erin McKnight, medical director of Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Medication Assisted Treatment for Addiction Program for adolescents.

“Just not using drugs or abstaining from something doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s truly in recovery,” she said. “They really need to be able to live their life to their fullest, have a job they love, have a family that they feel that they’re supported by, have relationships that they’re fulfilled by. And that is something that when you start using (drugs) as an adolescent, you lose the ability to navigate those things, and our team helps people do that.”

At the discussion’s conclusion, each panelist shared indicators that offer hope that the community is making progress in combating the opioid epidemic. The decline in opioid-related deaths in Columbus from 804 in 2020 to 788 in 2021 – the first decline in seven years – is an encouraging sign, said Andrea Boxill, administrator, Columbus Public Health’s Alcohol and Drug Services division.

More deaths can be prevented if health care providers and community organizations conduct ongoing outreach to people in need of treatment, she said.  

“The organizations are critical. I am very hopeful because of these events … going to corner stores, going to the middle of the spot and saying, ‘Hey, we’re giving it out for free. We’re going to give you some hand sanitizer, some masks,’ maybe a free lunch,” Boxill said. “Whatever it takes to bring them in, if it saves their life, it’s worth it.”

The panel was moderated by Columbus Dispatch Opinion and Community Page Editor Amelia Robinson and also featured Erika Clark Jones, ADAMH Franklin County CEO; Juliet Dorris-Williams, executive director, The P.E.E.R. Center recovery program; Dr. Krisanna Deppen, program director, OhioHealth Grant Addiction Medicine Fellowship; and Brian Pierson, vice president, community health and well-being, Mount Carmel Health System.

For more information and to access resources that can aid in treatment and recovery for opioid-related use disorder, visit The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s website, Ohio State’s Student Health Services, or Ohio State’s Student Wellness Center’s Recovery Month website that lists programs and services that will be available throughout September and beyond.

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