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With the goal to identify short- and long-term solutions to the opioid crisis, three representatives from University of the Sciences were chosen to serve on subcommittees for The Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic in Philadelphia. The faculty shared their expertise regarding the impact of the epidemic, while also gaining valuable insights to bring back to the classroom as they guide the next generation of healthcare professionals.
“Heroin and fentanyl have become a serious public health issue in Philadelphia,” said George Downs PharmD’72, professor of clinical pharmacy and dean emeritus of Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, who also teaches a course on substance abuse and serves on the Public Education and Prevention Strategies Subcommittee. “Anything that we can do to assist in reducing the misuse of opioids will be of value. This is not a one-person issue, and all of us must collaborate to deal with the problem.”
The task force was convened in January 2017 to tackle this crisis, which has led to 900 overdose deaths in 2016 in Philadelphia. Cochaired by Arthur Evans, Jr., PhD, commissioner of the department of behavioral health and intellectual disability services, and commissioner of health Thomas Farley, MD, MPH, the task force brought together a broad cross section of stakeholders who are affected by the epidemic.
“It is my hope that the outcomes of our efforts are policies and initiatives that will reduce overdose and associated harmful health and social impacts of opioid use,” said Amy Jessop, PhD, MPH, associate professor of health policy and public health and a board member of Prevention Point Philadelphia. Dr. Jessop said that the Data Analysis and Sharing Subcommittee on which she was a member included people whose expertise and perspective on the issues differ, thus providing invaluable real-world ideas to address the crisis.
The subcommittees revealed the need for more rehabilitation beds for those who are ready and seeking help, said Dr. Downs. In general, he said, there should be a reset in the way doctors treat addiction; they should think about it more as a disease than a choice.
“Evidence-based treatments such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone given alongside quality psychosocial supports should be made available to patients. And they should include those in jail, on probation or parole, or in drug courts,” said Gail Groves Scott MPH’16, a health policy fellow in addiction studies at USciences Mayes College of Healthcare Business and Policy, who was on the Justice System, Law Enforcement, and First Responders Subcommittee.
“We can’t keep doing just what we have been doing,” said Scott. “We are hearing from the community and other stakeholders that this crisis calls for some bold choices, which could include implementing controversial measures like opening ‘safe sites’ where people can go, even if they are still consuming illicit substances, where providers can engage in overdose prevention and provide social supports.”
The committee finalized its recommendations in a report issued on May 19, 2017. However, Dr. Jessop, Dr. Downs, and Scott had already begun applying in the classroom the lessons learned through their participation.
“This experience on the task force subcommittee has allowed me to share real-time epidemiologic data and the policy development process with my students,” said Dr. Jessop.
Dr. Downs has made connections with several of the fellow committee members, creating partnerships and opportunities for students to get involved.
All USciences pharmacy students are taught how to administer naloxone and how to counsel individuals on its proper use to stop a drug overdose. Through partnerships, Dr. Downs was able to expand this effort with USciences students involved in Generation Rx and Prevention Point Philadelphia. The students, with faculty, mentors, and Prevention Point volunteers, teamed up to convince pharmacies to stock the drug, which is supposed to be available to anyone in Pennsylvania who requests it, even without a prescription. (See page 10 for more on this effort.)
“This past spring our students went around to various pharmacies to talk with pharmacists about providing naloxone in an effort to address their concerns,” said Dr. Downs. “It is a complex topic and there is no easy answer; however, by talking through the issues, we hope to increase the availability of this lifesaving drug.”
Scott, who is leading the University’s addiction studies work and will spearhead the launch of the University’s Substance Use Disorders Institute, said the task force has shown her where there are gaps in knowledge and research regarding interventions.
“By expanding our efforts to educate healthcare providers about substance use disorders and perhaps the intersection with pain management, we can provide more continuing education programming about the new guidelines and regulations regarding prescribing or dispensing opioids and overdose prevention medications,” said Scott.