Opioid Overdose Deaths Decreasing

March 9, 2020

Combating the opioid epidemic is a popular cause, and many organizations, government entities, and health care groups have responded.

The opioid epidemic is far from over, but after years of increasing relentlessly, the trendline for the number of drug overdose deaths in the United States finally turned the other direction. According to federal health statistics, there were 67,367 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2018, a notable 4.1% decline from the 70,237 deaths that occurred in 2017. 

The rate of overdose deaths from natural and semisynthetic opioids (oxycodone, hydrocodone) and heroin were lower in 2018 than in 2017. It’s not all good news: The rate for synthetic opioids (fentanyl, tramadol) increased from 2017 to 2018.

Combating the opioid epidemic is a popular cause, and many organizations, government entities, and health care groups have responded. 

Here are four examples:

Boston Medical Center, Boston

Mothers are more likely to show up for their infants’ check-ups than they are for their own check-ups. It’s a simple maxim followed by clinicians at Boston Medical Center’s Supporting Our Families through Addiction and Recovery-SOFAR, for short-clinic to “hook” mothers into managing their health and maintaining their recovery from dependence on opioids. Launched in July 2017, the program, which is run by largest safety-net hospital in Massachusetts, has seen 200 mother-child pairs since its start. 

The mother-child pairs are connected to SOFAR through Project RESPECT, another Boston Medical Center program that provides obstetric and substance use disorder treatment for pregnant women and their newborns. While the infant participates in their well-baby visit, in the SOFAR clinic, the mother receives  treatment for her dependence on opioids, including access to medication-assisted treatment and a mentor who has been through a similar life experience.

Eileen Costello, MD, chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and medical director at SOFAR, and other specially trained pediatricians engage with mothers by asking them about family support, their living situations, and their children. Many of these women are raising  children without the help of a partner, notes Costello. Some are living in group homes or struggling with custody issues. If they are taking one of the drugs used in medication-assisted treatment, such as methadone, they often must deal with criticism from family members and others. To help, says Costello, clinicians educate mothers about the research that shows that opioid-dependent women who don’t take methadone or buprenorphine in the prenatal and postpartum periods are at greater risk of relapse in the first year of their child’s life.

The program also supports mothers who are struggling with the shame of potentially having harmed their infant by taking opioids during their pregnancy. SOFAR celebrates their efforts and successes by, for example, recognizing the achievement of arriving at 6 a.m. to get their methadone with an infant in tow, especially during a bitter cold Boston winter.

The greatest challenges with launching the program were associated with overcoming “all the silos” in the hospital setting, says Costello; for example, getting internal medicine and pediatric physicians co-located and tracking clinicians’ time effectively for billing purposes.

Data from the program are collected and analyzed to measure its effect. One finding so far: In its first year, clinicians treated and cured 335 of the mothers with hepatitis C in the SOFAR program, says Costello.

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