The US opioid epidemic is reaching unprecedented levels. Almost 48,000 people died of an overdose in 2017 and millions of people are affected by opioid abuse.
One challenge in the treatment of opioid abuse and overdose is that they lie at the intersection of multiple disciplines, providers, and dynamics. Mental health, public policy, law enforcement, social work, housing, emergency care, and medication all play a role. But too often, only the immediate problem is addressed -- and care coordination fails -- which means that patients end up experiencing chronic repetition of that problem.
A recent study looks at why opioid overdoses reveal the significant cracks in the care coordination that exist -- and endanger all patients.
You could say that West Virginia is Ground Zero for the opioid epidemic. The state has an opioid overdose rate more than three times the national average and the highest death rate from drug overdoses in the country. So the challenges that patients and providers face there are instructive for providers in states with less severely affected populations but who face similar dynamics.
In an effort to understand the trajectory of care for these patients, Fierce HealthCare looked at a recent West Virginia study of Medicaid claims. Researchers followed the treatment of patients after the overdose code to see whether follow-up care was billed. For instance, checking to see whether mental health visits, opioid counseling visits or prescriptions for psychiatric and substance abuse medications were billed after the initial Emergency Room care.
Following ER care for an overdose, less than 10% of patients received a substance abuse drug and fewer than 15% received mental health counseling. Of course, it’s possible that the rate of referrals was higher and that many patients didn’t access the counseling. But realistically, follow-up may be as crucial a part of the care as the initial care itself. As one patient who was treated for an overdoes in the ER said, “There were a lot of times I could have gone down a better path, and I fell through the cracks."
I noticed several key insights from this study that I think are meaningful for any provider, regardless of how relevant opioid abuse in particular feels to them.
4 key learnings from opioid overdose and care coordination failures:
- The more complex the disease, the greater the risks for coordination.
But "complexity" doesn't just come from the details of the disease itself. In opioid abuse, multiple parties, including healthcare providers and social services all need to come together to care for the patient effectively. And these providers must collaborate across institutional lines, across the continuum of care, and across a long time horizon. This complexity is where we start to see care coordination fall apart -- but really it just reveals the weakness in care coordination that exists for all patients.
- Some diseases are associated with less sympathy than others.
The reality is that with drug overdoses, there may be an aspect of moral condemnation in the ways that healthcare approaches the problem. As healthcare providers, we know that opioid abuse is really a complex disease. But it's very possible that bias sneaks in and the complex coordination of providers, services, and care falls short because providers may feel less sympathetic about the particular aspects of this disease. Some of our most vulnerable populations may have healthcare challenges that are frustrating or overwhelming to providers -- and it's important that providers are able to collaborate with social services and colleagues that can support these patients in ensuring appropriate care.
- All good care goes beyond acute care.
It’s never enough to simply treat the acute illness that is right in front of us. But as providers, we need the tools and collaboration to care for patients more broadly than that. Most emergencies require more than simply treating the situation in front of us. A baby's stitches in the ER require follow-up with the pediatrician. An overdose necessitates counseling and substance abuse drugs.
Our EHRs and systems simply don't support this more broad understanding of what it means to provide care in complex situations. And that means our patients are receiving subpar care, due to the limitations of our tools and workflows. Each healthcare provider is doing his or her job to the best of his or her ability. But the demands of caring for our patients mean that sometimes just "doing our job" isn't good enough -- we must also look at the big picture of that care. And we must demand tools to help us act well and care appropriately within that big picture.
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