November Policy & Advocacy Update

Shifting Perspectives: Tackling the Opioid Epidemic as a Public Health Crisis

Written by James Curtin, Chief Business & Government Relations Officer, Acenda

This blog follows an event with the same title on October 6, 2022. The event was hosted by the Acenda Institute of Health Innovation with experts in the areas of public policy, public health, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery services addressing the need to truly treat the ongoing opioid epidemic as the public health crisis that it is and has been for many years.

What is Public Health?

As explained by Charles-Edward Amory Winslow, an American bacteriologist, public health is “ the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals.”

The question actually does need to be asked because as I found out recently through my work with the first phase to launch New Jersey’s Public Health Institute, the average citizen really becomes confused by this question. I am a proud member of the executive team at Acenda Integrated Health, which is serving as the incubator organization for the first-ever Public Health Institute in New Jersey. And the first one in our country to be founded with a core value of “equity”. We feel privileged to play a role in what we know will be a tremendous benefit to individuals, families, communities, and the entire state of New Jersey for generations to come. We fully expect marginalized communities to greatly benefit too!

I have come to understand that we all make up public health. In fact, we are public health. Public health connects us all. The work is about protecting and improving the health of people and their communities. The work is achieved by promoting healthy lifestyles, researching disease and injury prevention, and detecting, preventing, and responding to infectious diseases. Overall, public health is concerned with protecting the health of entire populations.

Some populations can be as small as a local community or as big as a country or region.

The Opioid Epidemic

According to the CDC, the number of drug overdose deaths increased by 30% from 2019 to 2020 and has quintupled since 1999. Nearly 75% of the 91,799 drug overdose deaths in 2020 involved an opioid. Then the pandemic hit and the epidemic rapidly worsened as evidenced by the 107,000 reported overdose deaths in 2021. To crystalize this ongoing tragedy, think about it this way: 12 people died of an overdose every hour in this country over a recent 12-month period. This is startling, to say the least.

While public awareness has increased significantly and there are some positive signs such as the increased funding flowing from the federal government to states targeted to combat the opioid epidemic on several fronts, there appears to be no end to this tragedy in sight.

Collaboration among the medical field, emergency services, mental health, substance use disorder treatment providers, and public health is necessary if we’re ever going to stem the tide of this epidemic. It seems that public health is new to the table but a true public health approach must be infused in every local community, every municipality, every state, every region, and the whole country if lives are to be saved.

The fields of prevention, treatment, and recovery support services often go about their work in a much more integrated fashion than had been the case for many years. I think we all have learned the valuable lesson that “silos” only further exacerbate the problem and wasted valuable resources that could go a long way to curbing death.

We cannot sit back and hope that overdose deaths will reduce now that we’re moving out of the pandemic. This will not just ordinarily happen. People who have developed opioid use disorders during the pandemic or those who were suffering from such prior to the pandemic will only continue to struggle with their disorder if they are lucky enough to survive. Look up Fentanyl!

We, as a nation, must reframe this ongoing epidemic as the public health issue that it truly is. The epidemic cuts across all sectors of society. It’s become commonplace when addressing this issue publicly to ask: who in the audience has been directly or indirectly affected? Typically every hand goes up. This was once only true in the northeast and Midwest. It’s now true from coast to coast.

It was so inspiring to listen to our panelists on October 6, as they shared wisdom, experience, and hope in dealing with this issue through a public health lens. As a country, we have a lot riding on our ability to finally stem the deadly tide of this epidemic. Until we do so, lives will continue to be lost at an unprecedented rate which we cannot let happen.