How to Combat an Epidemic

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center uses innovative methods to tackle opioid addiction in Pennsylvania

In the fall of 2017, President Donald Trump labeled the opioid crisis in the United States a public health emergency, reflecting the growing public consciousness of the epidemic and its impact on individuals throughout the country.

Heroin, a well-known opioid, is illegal. However, there are also many legal opioids, including painkillers such as morphine, methadone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. These drugs can sometimes be overprescribed, but they are also sold illegally.

Pennsylvania has been hit especially hard by the problem. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), a full 85 percent of the 4,652 drug overdoses in the state in 2016 involved an opioid.

At the University of Pittsburgh (UP) Medical Center, the Pittsburgh Poison Center is tackling the problem through innovative methods that involve a vast network of partnerships.

For instance, people who are struggling with opioid addiction or their family members can call a 1-800 number and benefit from the following services: medical screenings, information on how to obtain naloxone—a medication that helps with opioid withdrawals—contact information for detoxification and rehabilitation facilities, take-home resources on substance abuse, and help with payments for treatment. Poison center specialists will also follow up by phone to provide ongoing support.

In addition to these resources, one of the UP Medical Center’s most innovative projects is called OverdoseFreePA. In the program, the University of Pittsburgh’s Program Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU) works with death statistics to figure out where the problem is most concentrated among different parts of the state as well as other demographics.

In a recent interview with Fox News, Dr. Janice Pringle, PERU director, said that the initiative casts a wide net in order to assemble data that will help them be more targeted in addressing the problem.

“It’s represented by age, by gender, by ethnicity, by location,” Pringle explained during the interview. “That helps you understand that in certain parts of the state there may be patterns. We do have a couple of counties in Pennsylvania that are stabilizing with their overdose rates. We’re coming at this relentlessly from multiple directions.”

OverdoseFreePA is one of the first programs putting into action the Department of Health and Human Services’ emphasis on researching public health programs specifically targeting the opioid problem. Dr. Karl Williams, Allegheny County medical examiner explains that it’s an extraordinary program unlike anything else in the United States. “There’s nothing like it for information about what is going on for overdoses in each of the individual counties,” he said in an interview with Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Allegheny is one of only sixty-seven counties in the state, and the program aims to store similar data from all of them. Information is available going several years back for some counties, while others only have data for the present year. Statistics are also constantly updated as new death reports come in.

The organization’s staff is hoping that as people nationwide see the success of the program, it will catch on in other states. And that’s important because the problem isn’t confined to Pennsylvania. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than ninety Americans overdose on opioids every day. In economic terms, when you take into account healthcare, treatment, legal problems, and lost productivity at work, that equates to a loss of roughly $78.5 billion a year.

Although opioids are readily available, addiction generally begins by a patient misusing a prescription. The CDC estimates that as much as 29 percent of patients misuse their prescriptions and that about 12 percent subsequently develop a disorder. In addition, 6 percent of those that misuse prescriptions eventually use heroin, and 80 percent of people who started with heroin abuse prescription opioids.

Among the health problems caused by opioid addiction are overdoses, neonatal abstinence syndrome (children born addicted), HIV, and hepatitis C through the use of syringes.

UP Medical Center is leading the way in finding solutions to the problem. In a medical center press release, Michael Lynch, medical director of the poison center, described the specific goals of the center’s initiative.

“This initiative represents a completely novel use of poison center knowledge, capabilities, and resources uniquely suited to addressing this epidemic,” he said. “We hope to arm the community and healthcare providers with additional information to combat the scourge of overdoses and addiction and the threat they pose to our public health.”


“PARO is proud to be a trusted partner of UPMC, a true leader in taking action on the opioid crisis.  We share a common mission to help those in our community who are truly in need.  For more information on PARO’s industry-leading charity methodology or how to transform health system foundations in cultivating financial donors, please contact Neil Smithson (nsmithson@paroscore.com) or Pete Hogan (phogan@paroscore.com).”


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