Kentucky Can Stem the Tide of Opioid Abuse and Addiction

photo of UK Chandler Hospital
UK HealthCare was named Kentucky's Best Hospital in the 2019-20 U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Kentucky families know better than most the plague of addiction. Kentucky ranks third in the United States in overdose deaths, and families residing in Kentucky’s rural communities are disproportionately impacted by the opioid crisis.

But there is hope. There is us.

We know that Kentucky can stem this devastating tide.

At the University of Kentucky, our faculty and clinicians are doggedly determined to defeat this formidable foe. Clinicians and researchers are working across our campus – and in communities throughout Kentucky – to devise creative and compassionate solutions to the opioid epidemic.

Universities, academic medical centers, public health departments, policy makers, and law enforcement officials across the country are partnering to address this multi-faceted issue from different angles and with creative solutions.

In Kentucky, the partnerships are particularly important. UK and our state are working in partnership with local, state, and federal stakeholders to bring hope to those trying to break free from the grip of addiction.

During last month’s UK Board of Trustees retreat, we engaged in intentional conversation about the causes, implications, and steps we are taking to address one of Kentucky’s most important questions. In advance of our retreat, Board members read Dopesick, a powerful, best-selling account by Beth Macy that details the history and evolution of narcotic addiction. Dopesick specifically addresses the impact of opioid addiction in the Appalachian region, including Eastern Kentucky, which is so central to our education, health and service missions.

The risk factors of the toxic ecosystem of drug addiction include legal and illegal drug distribution; a global economy where dignity and livelihoods suffer from lost jobs; the failure of regulation; and disagreements of how we treat the individuals and communities affected by the opioid crisis.

Sharon Walsh, director of the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research (CDAR) and professor of Behavioral Science, began the day by providing an overview and introduction to the opioid epidemic. Though the topic has been covered heavily in the news, and many people have been directly impacted by opioid addiction, many don’t know where and when the problem began.

Attendees also had the opportunity to hear from three survivors who have been directly impacted by the opioid crisis. Alex, Dan, and Heather spoke candidly about their experiences in active addiction and their paths to recovery.

Their heart-wrenching, courageous, and inspiring stories reminded us of the determination and compassion required to overcome this challenge.

Our campus has harnessed these qualities to produce meaningful change. But we know that Kentucky can do more—can be more.

Targeting the opioid epidemic in various settings is key to ending the stranglehold of this disease on communities. The best approaches to this were discussed by a panel that included Dr. Allen Brenzel, medical director for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and associate professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at UK; Dr. Laura Fanucchi from the Division of Infectious Disease; Secretary John Tilley from the Kentucky Justice and Safety Cabinet; and Dr. Roger Humphries, chair of the UK Department of Emergency Medicine. The panel discussed how addiction medicine can be integrated into traditional health care settings like the First Bridge Clinic and through the new UK Addiction Consult Service.

Information also was provided about how the opioid crisis affects entire communities and entire families. Through the Perinatal Assessment and Treatment Home (PATHways) and Beyond Birth programs, pregnant and newly-parenting women are given a chance. The program incorporates the best practices in the field, adhering to federal guidelines for office-based buprenorphine treatment across the spectrum of care for women, and provides a comprehensive treatment program for a highly vulnerable population with substance use disorders. Through continuous levels of care, ranging from intensive medical care to sustained recovery, women and their families receive support and advocacy. 

UK HealthCare also has office-based opioid treatment programs, which link patients hospitalized with infections related to infectious diseases and chronic infections such as HIV. 

Collaboration is crucial to fundamentally changing the trajectory of the epidemic. We know what success on this critical front looks like. We know that strategic and targeted research, education, and participation can make a lasting difference. 

Kentucky can make a lasting difference.

The scope of the crisis illustrates the holistic, complex, and multidisciplinary response required to fundamentally change the trajectory of the epidemic: policy implementation, health care, and treatment pipelines, community and individual-level interventions, basic science, and new and novel methods of safe drug delivery are all pieces in this complex puzzle.

UK is ready to take the steps necessary to achieve greater, sustainable solutions to tackle this unrelenting opioid crisis.

Kentucky can answer the call to save lives and heal communities.