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Infectious Disease on the Rise due to Opioid Epidemic: What Health Workers Should Know

An integrated approach may reduce risk and incidence of infectious disease.

The opioid epidemic has been going strong for two decades and currently affects an estimated 2.1 million people. To further complicate matters, a new report indicates a co-occurring crisis: infectious diseases due to sharing infected needles, unsafe sex practices, and lack of adequate medical care. The report, conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, identified barriers to integrated treatment and provided recommendations for policy change.

What Did the Research Find?

The report focused on various factors contributing to the co-existing issues and how the healthcare industry can better integrate the treatment of these two epidemics. “It’s very clear that opioid use and infectious disease are intertwined,” says Robin P. Newhouse, Ph.D., dean of the Indiana University School of Nursing, who served on the report committee. “The report indicates that the combination of infectious disease care and opioid use disorder care together will help prevent new infectious diseases in the future.” In addition, researchers pinpointed four main barriers to addressing the two mutually growing epidemics: policy, financing, stigma, and workforce shortages.

Why Does This Research Matter?

Researchers recommended several policy changes to help providers manage the two epidemics simultaneously. These include removing insurance requirements to allow providers to prescribe medications for opioid-use disorder (OUD) and lifting bans on syringe service programs. Researchers also recommend removing Medicare restrictions on same-day billing bans for medical and behavioral health services. 

What Does This Mean for Healthcare Professionals?

Overall, the report urges for a more integrated approach, which may mean that providers must re-evaluate their current methodology. This may mean, among other things, that providers partner with local resources. “The first step is to consider other types of competencies and experiences that need to be present in your practice to deliver care for this integrated model,” says Dr. Newhouse. “This could mean partnering with other services, bringing a provider into your primary care practice on certain days for screenings, or adding addictions counselors or peer coaches to your practice, for example.” The report also encourages providers to evaluate their current screening methods, expand syringe programs to ensure broad access to clean syringes and emphasize stigma reduction among the entire workforce, from lab workers to front-desk staff.

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