Guest Commentary: Pursuing constructive addiction treatment at the height of the opioid abuse crisis
While increased focus and attention to the opioid epidemic is an important step in addressing addiction, data show we still have many challenges ahead of us if we are to slow and ultimately reverse the upward trajectory of drug and opioid abuse in the U.S.
More than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, and according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we've seen about a 20% increase in overdose deaths between year-end 2015 and 2016. Furthermore, overdose deaths from opioids have more than quadrupled since 1999.
We must address this epidemic at its roots by more effectively treating those currently addicted while also focusing on prevention. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all treatment. Therefore, successfully addressing this crisis requires proactively bringing comprehensive and personalized solutions to people who are suffering from addiction or are at risk.
Addiction is not an acute illness, yet we continue to treat it as such, both in thinking and in medical practice. HHS' 2016 report Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health summed up the challenge: "We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw—it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer."
Decades of comprehensive research have helped us to understand that addiction is a disease, not an opinion. It has significant effects on the brain as well as the rest of the body and can develop as a result of biological or environmental factors, or often a combination of the two. As a verified and scientifically validated disease, addiction deserves the same level of attention and care provided to patients and treatment programs for other illnesses, including long-term, multifaceted clinical care, rather than finite courses of therapy.
Everyone approaches addiction with a different background, lifestyle and set of experiences, and it is imperative to meet them where they are with a treatment program that is accessible, realistic and sustainable. Treatment should include access to a full spectrum of evidence-based care, including withdrawal management, inpatient and outpatient care, medication-assisted treatment and adequate therapy for co-occurring mental health disorders. Settings need to be designed to help promote healing and staffed by specialists with extensive expertise in the field of addiction medicine and mental health counseling.
The addiction crisis has torn families apart and devastated entire communities, leaving a trail of crime, homelessness and poverty in its wake. While family involvement is a critical part of addiction treatment, helping to improve communication through a community-based approach to treatment can help build an additional constructive and compassionate local support network for patients. This type of community engagement provides important aftercare services that contribute to long-term recovery, including sober living and access to doctor's appointments and group or individual therapy sessions, among others.
Since the 1970s, only about five new classes of medicine have been developed to treat addiction. There is a significant need for funding to generate and offer incentives to develop innovative and clinically validated treatment options for people suffering from substance abuse disorders. Federal funding is critical, but it is equally important that funding is properly dispersed at the state level so local solutions can be implemented based on the specific needs of the area.
It is essential now more than ever for healthcare providers to focus on creating a comprehensive, positive and evidence-based patient experience from beginning to end, with treatment plans tailored to each patient's long-term recovery needs.
Everyone has a role to play to combat our substance abuse crisis. It is not enough to expect that any specialized group can provide the solution. We must all come together from a point of education and understanding to mobilize and synchronize services in our communities that contribute to a holistic effort, giving each individual the opportunity to thrive.
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