Dr. Anthony Tersigni: Integrated care can help make a difference for the opioid epidemic

Opioid dependency and subsequent drug overdose has become a major epidemic in our country. Ninety-one people die each day from an opioid overdose and the number of deaths has more than quadrupled in the last 17 years. As this pressing public health issue crosses every demographic and socioeconomic category, it's becoming increasingly important to band together to curb this growing epidemic.

Chronic pain afflicts more Americans than diabetes, heart disease, cancer and stroke combined. It is also the top reason Americans access the healthcare system. In this environment of opioid dependency, it’s crucial that we address pain management. September, Pain Awareness Month, affords organizations the opportunity to underscore public awareness of issues related to pain and safe ways to manage it.

At Ascension, we remain committed to personalized patient care that addresses physical pain in the context of an individual’s behavioral and mental health – recognizing and honoring the connectedness of mind, body and spirit.

Through our Community Health Needs Assessments, we have uncovered the most pressing needs in the communities we serve and continue to find opioid addiction at the top of the list. The assessments confirm what we already know to be true: There is much work to be done to better understand and manage the pain our patients endure and the gaps in care that exist.

One in seven Americans will face substance addictions; yet, only 10 percent of those addicted receive treatment. We are confident that an integrated, community-led effort is the best approach. Against a problem this widespread and complex, only a collaborative approach – involving Congress, providers, health systems, community health advocates, employers, behavioral health experts, public officials and first responders – can possibly provide the compassionate, personalized care that's needed on the required scale.

Ascension has proactively assembled dedicated systemwide teams to confront opioid dependency in multiple ways. Our approaches range from provider and community education, to monitoring, to standardized pain assessment tools and pain management guidelines for cautious and effective treatment of people with chronic pain.

We are committed to ensuring our providers have better awareness and the ability to share best practices in pain management therapies. As we treat patients who turn to us to fight opioid dependency, we also look for ensuing or underlying behavioral and mental health indicators. We have created pain assessment tools and pain management guidelines, which are being implemented across Ascension to find ways that are safer and more sustainable for our populations that don't carry the risk of abuse, addiction and tolerance. It's crucial to continue the development of programs that promote awareness and ensure access to treatment, while at the same time allocating vital resources to stem the epidemic.

Though objective measures and evidence-based therapies are proving an effective technique for managing pain, we also seek innovative approaches to the issue. We have found some success with a program that connects painkiller prescriptions to a patient's ability to function. We have also had success with alternative approaches such as aromatherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, pet therapy, music therapy, art and dance/movement therapy. All these integrated therapies can help decrease focus on pain.

The more we learn about pain and addiction, the clearer it becomes that one particular approach won't address this complex epidemic. We must challenge ourselves to continue to find creative ways to help people manage their pain while minimizing the opportunities for addiction.

On behalf of those we are privileged to serve, Ascension strongly encourages Congress and our colleagues across the healthcare industry to continue to support treatment options for those who have become dependent on opioids. Finding common ground will save lives.


Anthony R. Tersigni, EdD, FACHE, is president and CEO of St. Louis-based Ascension, the nation's largest nonprofit health system.

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