Monica Bharel, MD, DPH Commissioner (third from left), and Mary Anna Sullivan, MD, CMO for Lahey Health Behavioral Services (second from right), took part in a panel discussion about the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center on Wednesday, Oct. 19.
The number of opioid deaths in Massachusetts has been on the rise and reversing the course will take doctors, patients and community members working together, according to Monica Bharel, MD, the state’s top public health official.
“Many people around the country are looking to Massachusetts to start to come up with the answers to this epidemic that is hitting every state in our country,” Bharel told a group at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center (LHMC) as part of Right Care Action Week, a week dedicated to health care advocacy hosted by LHMC. “Working on this opioid epidemic will take all of us.”
Bharel is a general internist with more than 20 years as a practicing physician. Last week, she joined behavioral health experts from across Lahey Health at LHMC to talk about the Department of Public Health’s (DPH) efforts to combat the harrowing opioid epidemic and what health care providers can do. Gov. Charlie Baker, who appointed Bharel DPH commissioner in 2015, has made addressing the opioid crisis a priority for his administration.
During the discussion, Mary Anna Sullivan, MD, Chief Medical Officer for Lahey Health Behavioral Services, stressed the importance of including behavioral health and substance use disorders in a high quality health care system — previously both were regarded by the medical community as separate issues.
"Those days are over," Sullivan said. "We are all learning that we are responsible for the whole person."
Opioids are prescription painkillers that reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain, but have tremendous potential for addiction and abuse.
To attack the epidemic with precision, Bharel said the state’s response has been driven by data.
“We look for data disparities and areas where we can enhance equity and hotspot our limited resources,” she said.
The state’s numbers show the problem has gotten progressively worse. There were nearly 1700 opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts last year, up 350 percent from 15 years ago.
Of those deaths, some 66 percent were associated with fentanyl, often used in surgery. Also, opioid overdoses are more common among males -- men account for 74 percent of unintentional deaths. And the age group most affected is 25 to 44 years.
“This is not only a disease that is killing four individuals a day in Massachusetts, but four in the prime of their life,” Bharel said.
Bharel and her team have made recommendations for preventing opioid addiction, as well as intervention, treatment and recovery. She said one of the most difficult aspects of the epidemic is changing attitudes towards substance abuse.
“There are too many people who think about substance abuse as a moral decision or a choice an individual makes and something an individual should be punished for instead treated,” she said. “By talking openly, we’re seeing a slow but steady shift in the way people think about this disease.”