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Painkiller usage, demographics in Jefferson County discussed at work group meeting

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Medical providers and first responders spoke candidly at a community work group meeting about prescription drug abuse and the increasing number of patients they see facing problems with painkillers and other opioids.

Canice L. Fitzgerald, director of outpatient addiction services at Samaritan Medical Center, said she has seen a large shift in both the demographics of patients and the substances to which they are addicted.

A registered nurse who has been with the hospital since 1994 and involved in intensive outpatient care since 1998, Mrs. Fitzgerald said in 2005 that the percentage of patients they saw addicted to opioids was about 3 percent. She said that figure is now 25 percent.

Hospitals face several questions about how and where these type of patients should be treated.

“It’s critical to start the discussion now,” Mrs. Fitzgerald said.

One suggestion Mrs. Fitzgerald offered the group was increased primary care support for patients with opioid addiction. As one example, she recalled speaking with a woman whose family member was facing painkiller addiction, and recommended the person seek primary care help. The woman told Mrs. Fitzgerald they had tried that option, but had been told by one provider “We don’t treat addicts.”

“If you don’t think that attitude is out there, it definitely is,” she said.

She also expressed concern that as hospitals cut down on unauthorized access to opioid medications, more people may shift to illegal opioids such as heroin. In the two main age groups of people she sees seeking help, young adults and baby boomers, she’s already seen heroin use increase.

Mrs. Fitzgerald added as hospitals in the next year adjust to new education regulations under the Internet system for tracking overprescribing, one area of focus should be teaching staff members about the brain chemistry of addiction.

Also discussed was getting more patients on medication to counteract opioid effects, such as Vivitrol.

The issues with opioid misuse have also impacted emergency first responders.

Charles F. Brenon III, Jefferson County director of emergency medical services, reported that through Oct. 31 this year the county had 170 overdose cases. Most of the cases happened in the city, with the rest scattered around the county, creating issues with the level of certification of responding units.

One suggestion he offered was for more first responders to stock opioid antagonist Narcon, which quickly counteracts the products’ effects. The medication, which can be provided in several forms, is not carried by the Watertown Police Department or the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.

Mr. Brenon told the group about the ease that a patient can fall into addiction even when taking painkiller products as recommended.

He said he struggled for months with his use of Percocet after it was prescribed to him in late 2010 when his hip was removed.

“It was a tough ... it was no fun,” he told the group, cutting himself off in mid-sentence.

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