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Addicts Helping Addicts: Opioid Recovery Care Pilot Program To Expand After Dramatic Drop In Overdoses

A 1980 letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine was later widely cited as evidence that long-term use of opioid painkillers such as oxycodone was safe, even though the letter did not back up that claim.
A 1980 letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine was later widely cited as evidence that long-term use of opioid painkillers such as oxycodone was safe, even though the letter did not back up that claim.

The city of Jacksonville has seen a 70 percent drop in repeat opioid overdoses in the past year thanks to a new program that immediately introduces overdose patients to rehabilitation and treatment resources during their initial visit to the emergency department.

Project Save Lives identifies opioids overdose patients in the emergency room and gets them directly into recovery programs, according Dr. Raymond Pomm, the Chief Medical Director for Gateway Community Services in Jacksonville, who founded the program.  Pomm said the program connects a team of emergency room physicians, mental health workers and recovery peer specialists to work with patients.

“We engage with them, right then-and-there, in the emergency department,” Pomm, 66, said. “We try to get them motivated to get treatment.”

According to data from the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department (JFRD), the city has seen only one overdose death since the program began in Nov. 2017.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry approved the $1.5 million pilot program that launched Nov. 16, 2017.

Pomm proposed the rehabilitation project to city officials last year after Duval County saw and average of two deaths per day and two overdose transports an hour.

“The city was freaking out about it, and rightfully so," Pomm said.

Partners of the program include St. Vincent’s HealthCare, River Region Human Services, Gateway Community Services and UF Health Jacksonville.

Pomm, an addiction psychiatrist, has more than 30 years of experience working with addicts. He understands that not all patients will seek treatment, but said it helps when they’re willing to have a conversation with the recovery care specialists in the emergency rooms.

“Someone needs to be in the emergency department to meet with these overdose victims when they’re stabilized who have been there and done that,” Pomm said. “They’re addicts in recovery who can really relate heart-to-heart with them.”

Initially, Pomm said about 30 percent of patients agreed to engage in additional treatment. The teams realized that patients refused traditional treatment when they were not ready. Instead, Pomm said the specialists engage directly with patients for a better evaluation.  As a result, he said 50 percent of the program's patients are going into treatment, which tells him the approach works.

“We just don’t refer them to treatment; we take them to treatment,” Pomm said. “We take them to detox. We drive them there.”

Mark Rowley, JFRD spokesman, said the program’s success is directly related to the recovery care specialists who advocate for patients in the emergency rooms.

“These are people with shared experiences,” Rowley, 45, said. “They understand more than anyone what they’re going through.”

Rowley, an emergency room nurse for more than 20 years, said that he’s seen issues involved with overdose patients firsthand.

“Some of these people wake up disoriented and violent,” Rowley said. “Some get sick and instantly want to leave.”

Rowley said educating local healthcare providers has been another reason for the project’s success.

“A lot of providers were suffering from compassion fatigue,” Rowley said. “Having more information and people to explain what these patients are going through has been a tremendous help.”

Pomm said Project Save Lives is on track to expand through to 2020. The goal is to have a total of seven emergency departments involved by the end of the next fiscal year.

“Our model right now is the only model I know of in the country,” Pomm said. “And I’m proud to say that it’s been more successful than I would have ever guessed.”

Sean Denison is a reporter for WUFT News. He can be contacted at news@wuft.org or by calling 352-392-6397.