COVID Remains Focus for Health Officials Despite Rise in Opioid Epidemic


Understandably, COVID continues to be a high priority for healthcare workers, public officials and the media. However, it has also drawn attention away from the opioid epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that more than 100,000 people died of drug overdoses from April 2020 to April 2021, up almost 30% from the 78,000 deaths in the prior year. Of those deaths, more than two-thirds involved opioids. This astounding number exceeds the overdose death toll in any year since the opioid epidemic began in the 1990s and is the largest annual percentage increase since 1999, according to The Commonwealth Fund. It’s clear that healthcare providers, behavioral health professionals, and federal and state governments collectively must renew their focus on opioids. Not only does opioid addiction devastate communities and families, but it also exacts a huge toll on our economy. First, treatment services for substance use disorders such as opioid addiction need to be made more accessible and affordable to those who need it. Accessibility starts with helping to fund financially imperiled and resource-strapped treatment organizations to keep their doors open and services available. To that end, the Biden Administration in August announced $10.7 million in federal grants to enable state and regional networks of pediatric mental healthcare providers to integrate telehealth services into behavioral healthcare programs and substance abuse treatment. While that’s a start, more government investment in opioid treatment is critical. Second, we need to upgrade and expand crisis services to make these easily accessible to all in need. In July, the 988 initiative launches, establishing a new nationwide 3-digit number for people in crisis to connect with a mental health professionals and suicide prevention counselors. Beyond infrastructure needed to support this, such as mobile crisis teams, states must also invest in digital infrastructure necessary to ensure people can access care once they’ve contacted a crisis line. Third, we must integrate new treatment models such as telemedicine into care plans. This may require relaxing regulations governing the delivery of remote care. We know from our experience during the pandemic that telemedicine is effective, so it makes sense to permanently waive remote care restrictions so more people can get help to overcome mental health challenges and addiction. Finally, we must continue to use the powerful technologies already at our disposal to monitor the dispensing of prescribed opioids. State prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) allow physicians and pharmacists to see a patient’s recent prescription history and make more informed decisions to keep patients safe. Providers are more aware of prescriptions and changes in prescription history to help reduce negative drug interactions, prevent opioid misuse, and reduce the risk of opioid-related harm. Bamboo Health’s NarxCare is a clinical decision support tool and care management technology application currently used in more than 30 states and jurisdictions. The platform helps prescribers and dispensers analyze controlled substance data from PDMPs to make more informed prescription-care decisions. NarxCare automatically analyzes PDMP data and then it provides an interactive visualization of prescription drug usage patterns along with use scores and an overdose risk score. NarxCare is designed to provide physicians and pharmacists with a tool to ensure highly addictive pain medication is prescribed accurately to those who need it, while also helping to identify patients who may need intervening steps. The opioid epidemic isn’t going away by itself. We must all focus on reducing the death and destruction caused by insidious and persistent addiction. It will take caring, commitment, cooperation, and the right tools and resources. It will be a tough fight, but it’s one we can win.