A medication for opioid use treatment is being made widely available in Interior Health hospital emergency departments as the toxic drug crisis continues to worsen in B.C.
The use of suboxone, a medication for Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), has now been expanded to over 20 hospital emergency departments across the region, according to Interior Health. It began as a partnership last June between Interior Health’s Emergency Services and Mental Health and Substance Use networks.
Suboxone is an Opioid Agonist Treatment (OAT) medication, used to treat OUD by preventing withdrawal and reducing cravings for opioid drugs.
“The toxic drug crisis continues to impact patients, families, and communities. We can be part of the solution to this ongoing public health emergency and hopefully prevent lives from being lost by providing OAT in the ED,” said Heather Hair, Interior Health emergency services network director. “We are having conversations and building relationships with people who often have experienced stigma, and hopefully helping keep them from harm.”
The project includes offering Suboxone “to-go packs” to start patients at home, along with a new urgent referral process to connect people to ongoing OAT in their communities.
All hospitals in Interior Health are expected to have suboxone available in emergency departments by September.
READ: Expert panel recommends safe supply, evidence-based care to counter toxic drug crisis
The toxic drug crisis has claimed thousands of lives in British Columbia since the provincial government declared a public health emergency in 2016.
Last year was the worst year on record for fatal overdose outcomes due to illicit drug toxicity, as the B.C. Coroners Service reported 2,236 deaths. Interior Health mirrored that trend, with 372 deaths due to toxic drugs last year, a 29 per cent increase over 2020.
Out of Interior Health’s jurisdiction, the Okanagan region reports the highest number of drug poisoning deaths in the B.C. Interior at 172 in 2021.
A death review panel of experts recently tabled a report examining the circumstances of 6,007 deaths due to toxic drugs, and called for an increased access to safer supply, creation of an evidence-based continuum of care to better support substance users.
That report came with a number of recommendations, one of which included developing a 30/60/90-day action plan that has not been followed by the NDP government, for which it has been roundly criticized.
According to Interior Health, providing front-line nurses and physicians in emergency departments with OAT and training has reduced barriers, with overwhelmingly positive feedback from clinicians and patients.
Laura Sherret, a nurse prescriber who works in Cranbrook, says she was excited to be a part of the OAT implementation at the East Kootenay Regional Hospital emergency department, as it was already “fairly limited” in the community.
“The clients I have seen as a nurse prescriber who has succeeded in staying on suboxone or transitioned to the long-acting injectable are doing very well,” Sherret said. “They are reconnected to families, have jobs, and are managing life’s challenges in positive ways. Others have gone on to other OAT therapies that suit them better so they, too, can move forward. We continue to build relationships and trust with people and support them in their choices.”
Sherret also noted an “amazing shift” in emergency department staff as they gained a better understanding of what Suboxone is and how it works.
“Suboxone is now considered the gold standard of care, and that care is being provided right here in the ED at East Kootenay Regional Hospital.”
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