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November 15, 2021

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Support Frontline Clinicians, Break the Stigma of Addiction

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There are more than 21 million people across the United States currently battling substance abuse. Opioid overdoses alone kill 130 Americans every day. Total drug overdoses have tripled since 1990.

Substance abuse in the U.S. has long been a serious problem, impacting the lives of millions across the country, regardless of location, socio-economic status, race, gender, or age. Often linked with mental health issues like depression, substance abuse has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many experts predict that 2020 set a new record for drug overdose deaths in the United States, surpassing 90,000.

Our healthcare clinicians who have been bearing the mental toll of fighting COVID-19 are not immune to the devastating impacts of substance abuse. They are heroes, but they are also human.

Changing the culture to break the stigma

As the Chief Clinical Officer of Emergency Medicine and the co-chair of the Clinician Resiliency Committee at TeamHealth, one of the largest physician practices in the United States, I have seen first-hand how the stigma surrounding addiction has impacted our healthcare workers and which practices healthcare organizations can implement to support our clinicians more effectively to break the stigma of addiction.

Despite the complex biological and psychosocial components of addiction, it is often inappropriately considered to be a moral failure. The disconnect between the science and our culture in how we talk about substance abuse costs us thousands of lives by stigmatizing those battling addiction and making them hesitant to seek support. In fact, out of the millions of Americans with substance use disorders, only 10 percent seek treatment.

More than 60 percent of clinicians report that COVID-19 has harmed their mental health, and over half are experiencing burnout. While the pandemic did not create the issue of substance abuse among clinicians, it shined a spotlight on the need for healthcare organizations to implement support structures for those battling addiction.

Empowering leaders to provide support

Healthcare organizations should educate their teams on the history of addiction and address stigmatizing language and underlying biases surrounding substance use disorders to create an environment where neither clinicians nor patients feel shame asking for treatment resources. We need to break the stigma of addiction.

We must empower healthcare leaders to connect with their frontline clinicians by openly and transparently discussing addiction issues, so they can better provide the support they need. These leaders are in direct, day-to-day contact with clinicians, often working beside them, and they are best poised to identify those who may be struggling and act as a trusted resource for support.

By expanding free counseling sessions and increasing both financial and family support programs, we can break the stigma of addiction to ensure that clinicians who seek treatment have access to the resources they need. Healthcare organizations should also conduct regular one-on-one wellness checks with clinicians, a practice that was especially important for TeamHealth during the height of COVID-19.

Success depends on all of us

Addiction may not be something we like to talk about, but we need to. We cannot afford to perpetuate the stigma surrounding addiction at a time when our clinicians need support more than ever.

Success in breaking the stigma means making it a part of our everyday conversations and creating an environment where those battling addiction feel comfortable and supported when seeking treatment.

Support for clinicians, and everyday Americans, struggling with addiction begins with breaking the stigma, and I encourage all healthcare providers to prioritize these frontline heroes as we look to strengthen resiliency within our healthcare system.

Originally published on on October 27, 2021. See original article here.