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Addiction Medicine: Building a Bridge From Rescue to Recovery

News  |  By Debra Shute  
   March 01, 2017

From full wraparound treatment programs to tweaks in the ED, hospitals have ample opportunity to address chemical dependency and prevent deaths.

This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

Addiction is seen by some as a moral weakness or a character flaw, but as healthcare leaders point out, it is a brain disease—a chronic medical condition that providers must approach and treat with the same skill and compassion as cancer and heart disease.

"Simply put, you have to invest in behavioral medicine. It's a brain disorder, so you treat it like any other organ that you're treating, and it makes sense for addiction medicine to become a service line that you value and that you integrate into the other components of your health system," says Clay Ciha, president and CEO of Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

While not new, this way of looking at and treating addiction has only recently gained favor in the American healthcare industry, granted clinical credibility in Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.

"Over the past few decades, we have built a robust evidence base on this subject. We now know that there is a neurobiological basis for substance use disorders with potential for both recovery and recurrence," wrote Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, vice admiral, U.S. Public Health Service, Surgeon General, in his office's December 2016 report.

"We have evidence-based interventions that prevent harmful substance use and related problems, particularly when started early," Murthy continued. "We also have proven interventions for treating substance use disorders, often involving a combination of medication, counseling, and social support. Additionally, we have learned that recovery has many pathways that should be tailored to fit the unique cultural values and psychological and behavioral health needs of each individual."

For hospitals and health systems, leveraging this knowledge means doing more than pumping stomachs, administering fluids, or giving emergency opioid-reversal drugs. Such treatments, while life-saving, address only the surface of addiction.

According to a National Institutes of Health study, more than 23 million American adults have struggled with substance use disorder at some point in their lives. Addiction medicine service lines could unearth and manage the complexities of chemical dependence at their deepest levels, oftentimes repeatedly for each individual patient, as suggested by healthcare leaders.

Debra Shute is the Senior Physicians Editor for HealthLeaders Media.

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