According to the latest report from the CDC, an estimated 105,752 people died of drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending October 2021. In Florida alone, 7,617 people died of drug-related death in that same time period. These staggering numbers prove that the drug epidemic is deadlier than ever right now.
As those in health care and public service wrestle with how to prevent further loss of life, increasing harm reduction tactics in addiction care is critical in saving lives.
What is harm reduction, and why is it important?
Harm reduction means the medical provider and the patient develop a treatment plan that makes sense. It is a common technique used in primary care, although it might not be called “harm reduction.” For instance, many people with high blood pressure or diabetes could treat these medical problems with diet changes and exercise alone. Since most people are not able to sustain these changes, we can prescribe medications to control blood pressure and diabetes. This is a form of harm reduction.
Examples of harm reduction tactics to treat drug addiction include:
♦ Providing clean needles to limit HIV or hepatitis C infections;
♦ Preventing overdose deaths by educating people who use drugs on how to test for fentanyl;
♦ Giving Narcan, a medication that can be easily administered to reverse an overdose.
These may seem more drastic than prescribing medications for diabetes and high blood pressure, but they amount to the same thing: meeting patients where they are and helping them avoid illness and premature death.
A common misconception about harm reduction is that it actively encourages people to use drugs. On the contrary, it places more importance on the person than their choices. Harm reduction recognizes that human beings deserve to live and receive care whether they use drugs or not.
At Workit Health, we provide substance use and mental health support via telemedicine, and harm reduction is the foundation of our work. When it comes to treating addiction, harm reduction is essential because not everyone has the same goal. Some wish to practice abstinence, while others want to lessen the negative consequences that frequent drug use has on their lives.
For the second group of patients, we can use harm reduction to help them to avoid becoming infected with HIV or hepatitis C or worse, overdosing.
Harm reduction can keep people alive, and that should be our number one priority.
Increasing access to harm reduction services
Harm reduction programs are already hard at work in Tampa. However, by passing harm reduction bills and increasing organizations that prioritize harm reduction, the footprint will expand and access to services can grow considerably. As a result, lives will be saved.
For example, some pharmacies in Florida will not accept buprenorphine prescriptions when the prescriber is not in the same city. Buprenorphine is a highly effective drug used to treat opioid use disorder. This policy prohibits many people who need treatment from receiving it. As of the last study in 2020, 40 percent of counties in the U.S. don’t have a clinician waivered to prescribe buprenorphine. Addiction treatment options rooted in telehealth like Workit Health bridge the gap by prescribing the life-saving medication to people in those counties, but they aren’t able to help if policies like these are still in place. Buprenorphine-assisted treatment is a harm reduction tactic, and pharmacists should be educated on its benefits and the inclusivity of telehealth.
I encourage lawmakers to prioritize health and safety over stigma by supporting bills for harm reduction. This courageous stance may be challenging to explain to some of their constituents. However, when people understand what is at stake in the lives and well-being of loved ones — treatment approaches that seem extreme or counterintuitive start to make sense.
If you or a loved one are struggling with drug use, I encourage you to look into safe needle exchange programs, harm reduction and addiction treatment services near you, such as Workit Health or IDEA Exchange.
Kevin Armington is a supervising physician at Workit Health. Workit Health offers clinically proven telemedicine treatment for substance use disorder, including online therapy, medication-assisted treatment, psychiatric support and primary care for common co-occurring illnesses like hepatitis C via the Workit Health mobile app. Learn more about Workit Health at: www.workithealth.com.