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Treat overdoses like any other illness, physician general says in Greensburg visit

Renatta Signorini
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Kyle Hodges
(Left) Senator Kim Ward and Physician General Rachel L. Levine, MD, discuss the opioid crisis after a presentation on treatment and recovery at Excela Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg, on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
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Kyle Hodges
Physician General Rachel L. Levine, MD, talks about opioid recovery and treatment at the Excela Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg, on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
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Kyle Hodges
(Left) Physician General Rachel L. Levine, MD, speaks with Ron Ott, and Michael Busch at the Excela Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg, on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.

A drug overdose victim should be treated the same as a person who is revived from a heart attack, said the state’s physician general, Dr. Rachel Levine.

In both situations, the patient should be hospitalized and continue with appropriate treatment afterward, she said Wednesday.

“You don’t get naloxone and go back to bed. You have to call EMS; the patient has to be brought to the emergency department,” she said in touting a “warm hand-off” referral program for substance abuse treatment in Excela Health’s three hospitals.

Levine has been canvassing the state to bring awareness to the programs that counties were required to implement last year. In Westmoreland, a pilot “warm hand-off” program started by the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission in July 2014 connected patients at Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital directly with substance abuse treatment assistance. The program expanded to Latrobe and Frick hospitals in February.

After a news conference at the Greensburg hospital, Levine said the local program and its success rate are at “the forefront” of the state-mandated approach to get addicts from hospitals directly to a facility to curb an opioid epidemic that has claimed thousands of lives in Pennsylvania and sets annual death records in Westmore­land County.

As of April, 282 patients had been referred to mobile case managers who work out of the hospitals and meet with patients, said Kelli Nabuda, drug and alcohol case management supervisor at Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services. Of those, 41 percent of referred patients have attended the recommended level of care and 60 percent of them completed treatment, she said.

Levine called the local statistics “among the best.”

“We need to save their lives every time, and then we need to have a robust system … and get those people into treatment,” she said.

Between 2012 and 2015, 377 people died of an overdose in Westmoreland, according to coroner statistics. In 2016, 174 deaths were recorded. So far in 2017, 36 people have fatally overdosed and 52 suspected cases are being investigated. That puts the county on pace for 211 deaths — a record for the ninth consecutive year, said Dirk Matson, coordinator of county human services.

“We really must get past the stigma associated with addiction,” Levine said, describing it as a “chronic relapsing brain disease.”

She also cautioned physicians about opioid prescribing practices. Patients who become addicted to painkillers often turn to heroin when a legitimate prescription runs out.

“We have to make sure the patient doesn’t suffer. But because of this epidemic … we want to, in the medical community, use (opioids) very carefully and judiciously,” she said.

In addition to training the staff in how to recognize substance abuse problems in patients, Excela now prompts employees through an electronic system to make a referral when a patient needs one, said George Mizikar, director of behavioral health services. Program administrators constantly look for cracks where patients might fall, he said.

“We move beyond medical treatment, we move beyond the immediate crisis into what’s going to happen next in order to help them down the road,” he said.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter @byrenatta.

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