Opioid crisis remains No. 1 public health issue

Opioid crisis remains No. 1 public health issue

The addiction crisis that grips our state and nation is nothing short of one of the worst, if not the worst, public health issues in our country. According to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, drug overdoses killed more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined. And, the numbers keep growing.

How did we get here?  With the benefit of a few years in our rear-view mirror, we now know our state was literally in the crosshairs of this battle long before any of us recognized the impending crisis. There is published record by author Sam Quinones of middle America being specifically targeted by opioid producers and Mexican drug lords. This improved availability and lower cost of opioids coupled with poor economic conditions and isolating terrain created a rich environment for targeted drug activity, leaving the area to take the brunt of the drug-pushing activity. A rapid surge of opioid medications and heroin across West Virginia has been felt at every level of the community and left the state searching for solutions.

Institutions of higher learning, like Marshall University, are trusted focal points for community action and a necessary component for an effective community response. Last year, then newly-inaugurated Marshall University President Jerry Gilbert quickly assessed the escalating situation, not only in Huntington, but across the Mountain State. He, along with leaders across the institution including the medical and pharmacy schools, developed an attack plan including creation of a university-wide substance abuse coalition.

Where are we going? At the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, we are fighting this public health crisis through our three-pronged mission of education, research and clinical health care.

We are on the cusp of announcing a new professor and director of addiction sciences. This position allows us to strengthen our ability to work across disciplines. Moreover, we have restructured our medical school curriculum to include more instruction on the science of addiction. This is an important step as we train the doctors of tomorrow to meet the evolving health care needs of a population impacted by today’s drug issues. Additionally, we are driving a new comprehensive outreach, Healthy Connections, a multi-partner effort to deliver services and support our community partners across the region for families affected by the opioid crisis, particularly those whose babies were born prenatally exposed to drugs.

Substance abuse research at Marshall is dedicated to creating relevant solutions for our patients and community. Patients and caregivers are actively involved in directing research to find the best options for babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome, all patients with substance use disorder and their families. Over the past few years, we have published advances in care, discovered new complications in exposed neonates and will soon be presenting novel data that could change the paradigm of addiction medicine. Our patients have led us to discoveries that are not possible in other parts of the country.

Together with our faculty practice plan, Marshall Health, we are moving forward with strategies for additional treatment modalities for West Virginia. Our goal is to enhance the continuum of care and develop best practices for those suffering from substance use disorder in the Huntington area and beyond. Substance use treatment can be difficult to access for patients of all ages and socioeconomic statuses. According to published research, barriers at the health care system-level often begin with poor provider interaction and cumbersome treatment program structures. Addressing the poor optimization of substance abuse treatment, like any chronic disease, will likely rely on a robust managed care model.

Marshall remains committed to training future health care providers in the management of addiction, developing research into the intricacies of addiction science and delivering health care for those suffering from this life-altering disease. 

This article was co-written with Leah Payne, director of public affairs for the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. This article originally appeared in the November 3, 2017, edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

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Joseph I. Shapiro, MD

Dr. Shapiro is dean of the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine and a nephrologist with more than 30 years of clinical experience.