Hospitals Have Been Slow to Bring On Addiction Specialists

Hospitals have specialists ready to offer consult and care for concerns from cancer to childbirth but often no one with expertise in addiction medicine. Patients with a history of substance use — who are discharged without care — are at risk for overdose.

In December, Marie, who lives in coastal Swampscott, Massachusetts, began having trouble breathing. Three days after Christmas, she woke up gasping for air and dialed 911.

“I was so scared,” Marie said later, her hand clutched to her chest.

Marie, 63, was admitted to Salem Hospital, north of Boston. The staff treated her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung condition. A doctor checked on Marie the next day, said her oxygen levels looked good, and told her she was ready for discharge.

We are not using Marie’s last name because she, like 1 in 9 hospitalized patients, has a history of addiction to drugs or alcohol. Disclosing a diagnosis like that can make it hard to find housing, a job, and even medical care in hospitals, where patients with an addiction might be shunned.

But talking to the doctor that morning, Marie felt she had to reveal her other medical problem.

“‘I got to tell you something,’” Marie recalled saying. “‘I’m a heroin addict. And I’m, like, starting to be in heavy withdrawal. I can’t — literally — move. Please don’t make me go.’”

At many hospitals in Massachusetts and across the country, Marie would likely have been discharged anyway, still in the pain of withdrawal, perhaps with a list of local detox programs that might provide help.

Discharging a patient without specialized addiction care can mean losing a crucial opportunity to intervene and treat someone at the hospital. Most hospitals don’t have specialists who know how to treat addiction, and other clinicians might not know what to do.

Hospitals typically employ all sorts of providers who specialize in the heart, lungs, and kidneys. But for patients with an addiction or a condition related to drug or alcohol use, few hospitals have a clinician — whether that be a physician, nurse, therapist, or social worker — who specializes in addiction medicine.

That absence is striking at a time when overdose deaths in the U.S. have reached record highs, and research shows patients face an increased risk of fatal overdose in the days or weeks after being discharged from a hospital.

“They’re left on their own to figure it out, which unfortunately usually means resuming [drug] use because that’s the only way to feel better,” said Liz Tadie, a nurse practitioner certified in addiction care.

In fall 2020, Tadie was hired to launch a new approach at Salem Hospital using $320,000 from a federal grant. Tadie put together what’s known as an “addiction consult service.” The team included Tadie, a patient case manager, and three recovery coaches, who drew on their experiences with addiction to advocate for patients and help them navigate treatment options.

After Marie asked her doctor to let her stay in the hospital, he called Tadie for a bedside consultation.

Tadie started by prescribing methadone, a medication to treat opioid addiction. Although many patients do well on that drug, it didn’t help Marie, so Tadie switched her to buprenorphine, with better results. After a few more days, Marie was discharged and continued taking buprenorphine.

Marie also continued seeing Tadie for outpatient treatment and turned to her for support and reassurance: “Like, that I wasn’t going to be left alone,” Marie said. “That I wasn’t going to have to call a dealer ever again, that I could delete the number. I want to get back to my life. I just feel grateful.”

Tadie helped spread the word among Salem’s clinical staff members about the expertise she offered and how it could help patients. Success stories like Marie’s helped make the case for addiction medicine — and helped unravel decades of misinformation, discrimination, and ignorance about patients with an addiction and their treatment options.

The small amount of training that doctors and nurses get is often unhelpful.

“A lot of the facts are outdated,” Tadie said. “And people are trained to use stigmatizing language, words like ‘addict’ and substance ‘abuse.’”

Tadie gently corrected doctors at Salem Hospital, who, for example, thought they weren’t allowed to start patients on methadone in the hospital.

“Sometimes I would recommend a dose and somebody would give pushback,” Tadie said. But “we got to know the hospital doctors, and they, over time, were like, ‘OK, we can trust you. We’ll follow your recommendations.’”

Other members of Tadie’s team have wrestled with finding their place in the hospital hierarchy.

David Cave, one of Salem’s recovery coaches, is often the first person to speak to patients who come to the emergency room in withdrawal. He tries to help the doctors and nurses understand what the patients are going through and to help the patients navigate their care. “I’m probably punching above my weight every time I try to talk to a clinician or doctor,” Cave said. “They don’t see letters after my name. It can be kind of tough.”

Naming addiction as a specialty, and hiring people with specific training, is shifting the culture of Salem Hospital, said social worker Jean Monahan-Doherty. “There was finally some recognition across the entire institution that this was a complex medical disease that needed the attention of a specialist,” Monahan-Doherty said. “People are dying. This is a terminal illness unless it’s treated.”

This approach to treating addiction is winning over some Salem Hospital employees — but not all.

“Sometimes you hear an attitude of, ‘Why are you putting all this effort into this patient? They’re not going to get better.’ Well, how do we know?” Monahan Doherty said. “If a patient comes in with diabetes, we don’t say, ‘OK, they’ve been taught once and it didn’t work, so we’re not going to offer them support again.’”

Despite lingering reservations among some Salem clinicians, the demand for addiction services is high. Many days, Tadie and her team have been overwhelmed with referrals.

Four other Massachusetts hospitals added addiction specialists in the past three years using federal funding from the HEALing Communities Study. The project is paying for a wide range of strategies across several states to help determine the most effective ways to reduce drug overdose deaths. They include mobile treatment clinics; street outreach teams; distribution of naloxone, a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose; rides to treatment sites; and multilingual public awareness campaigns.

It’s a new field, so finding staff members with the right certifications may be a challenge. Some hospital leaders say they’re worried about the costs of addiction treatment and fear they’ll lose money on the efforts. Some doctors report not wanting to initiate a medication treatment while patients are in the hospital because they don’t know where to refer patients after they’ve been discharged, whether that be to outpatient follow-up care or a residential program. To address follow-up care, Salem Hospital started what’s known as a “bridge clinic,” which offers outpatient care.

Dr. Honora Englander, a national leader in addiction specialty programs, said the federal government could support the creation of more addiction consult services by offering financial incentives — or penalties for hospitals that don’t embrace them.

At Salem Hospital, some staffers worry about the program’s future. Tadie is starting a new job at another hospital, and the federal grant ended June 30. But Salem Hospital leaders say they are committed to continuing the program and the service will continue.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WBURNPR and KHN.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).

They Call It ‘Tranq’ — And It’s Making Street Drugs Even More Dangerous

Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, has made it into the illegal drug supply of opioids and cocaine. It is changing the way outreach workers treat overdoses and may be responsible for grisly injuries and infections among people who unknowingly inject it.

Approaching a van that distributes supplies for safer drug use in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a man named Kyle noticed an alert about xylazine.

“Xylazine?” he asked, sounding out the unfamiliar word. “Tell me more.”

A street-outreach team from Tapestry Health Systems delivered what’s becoming a routine warning. Xylazine is an animal tranquilizer. It’s not approved for humans but is showing up in about half the drug samples that Tapestry Health tests in the rolling hills of western Massachusetts. It’s appearing mostly in the illegal fentanyl supply but also in cocaine.

“The past week, we’ve all been just racking our brains — like, ‘What is going on?’” Kyle said. “Because if we cook it up and we smoke it, we’re falling asleep after.”

(NPR and KHN are using only first names in this article for people who use illegal drugs.)

Kyle’s deep sleep could also have been triggered by fentanyl, but Kyle said one of his buddies used a test strip to check for the opioid and none was detected.

Xylazine, which is also known as “tranq” or “tranq dope,” surged first in some areas of Puerto Rico and then in Philadelphia, where it was found in 91% of opioid samples in the most recent reporting period. Data from January to mid-June shows that xylazine was in 28% of drug samples tested by the Massachusetts Drug Supply Data Stream, a state-funded network of community drug-checking and advisory groups that uses mass spectrometers to let people know what’s in bags or pills purchased on the street.

Whatever its path into the drug supply, the presence of xylazine is triggering warnings in Massachusetts and beyond for many reasons.

As Xylazine Use Rises, So Do Overdoses

Perhaps the biggest question is whether xylazine has played a role in the recent increase in overdose deaths in the U.S. In a study of 10 cities and states, xylazine was detected in fewer than 1% of overdose deaths in 2015 but in 6.7% in 2020, a year the U.S. set a record for overdose deaths. The record was broken again in 2021, which had more than 107,000 deaths. The study does not claim xylazine is behind the increase in fatalities, but study co-author Chelsea Shover said it may have contributed. Xylazine, a sedative, slows people’s breathing and heart rate and lowers their blood pressure, which can compound some effects of an opioid like fentanyl or heroin.

“If you have an opioid and a sedative, those two things are going to have stronger effects together,” said Shover, an epidemiologist at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.

In Greenfield, Tapestry Health is responding to more overdoses as more tests show the presence of xylazine. “It correlates with the rise, and it correlates with Narcan not being effective to reverse xylazine,” said Amy Davis, assistant director for rural harm-reduction operations at Tapestry. Narcan is a brand name of naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal medication.

“It’s scary to hear that there’s something new going around that could be stronger maybe than what I’ve had,” said May, a woman who stopped by Tapestry Health’s van. May said that she has a strong tolerance for fentanyl but that a few months ago, she started getting something that didn’t feel like fentanyl, something that “knocked me out before I could even put my stuff away.”

A Shifting Overdose Response

Davis and her colleagues are ramping up the safety messages: Never use alone, always start with a small dose, and always carry Narcan.

Davis is also changing the way they talk about drug overdoses. They begin by explaining that xylazine is not an opioid. Squirting naloxone into someone’s nose won’t reverse a deep xylazine sedation — the rescuer won’t see the dramatic awakening that is common when naloxone is administered to someone who has overdosed after using an opioid.

If someone has taken xylazine, the immediate goal is to make sure the person’s brain is getting oxygen. So Davis and others advise people to start rescue breathing after the first dose of Narcan. It may help restart the lungs even if the person doesn’t wake up.

“We don’t want to be focused on consciousness — we want to be focused on breathing,” Davis said.

Giving Narcan is still critical because xylazine is often mixed with fentanyl, and fentanyl is killing people.

“If you see anyone who you suspect has an overdose, please give Narcan,” said Dr. Bill Soares, an emergency room physician and the director of harm reduction services at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Soares said calling 911 is also critical, especially when someone has taken xylazine, “because if the person does not wake up as expected, they’re going to need more advanced care.”

‘Profound Sedation’ Worries Health Providers

Some people who use drugs say xylazine knocks them out for six to eight hours, raising concerns about the potential for serious injury during this “profound sedation,” said Dr. Laura Kehoe, medical director at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Substance Use Disorders Bridge Clinic.

Kehoe and other clinicians worry about patients who have been sedated by xylazine and are lying in the sun or snow, perhaps in an isolated area. In addition to exposure to the elements, they could be vulnerable to compartment syndrome from lying in one position for too long, or they could be attacked.

“We’re seeing people who’ve been sexually assaulted,” Kehoe said. “They’ll wake up and find that their pants are down or their clothes are missing, and they are completely unaware of what happened.”

In Greenfield, nurse Katy Robbins pulled up a photo from a patient seen in April as xylazine contamination soared. “We did sort of go, ‘Whoa, what is that?’” Robbins recalled, studying her phone. The image showed a wound like deep road rash, with an exposed tendon and a spreading infection.

Robbins and Tapestry Health, which runs behavioral and public health services in Western Massachusetts, have created networks so clients can get same-day appointments with a local doctor or hospital to treat this type of injury. But getting people to go get their wounds seen is hard. “There’s so much stigma and shame around injection drug use,” Robbins said. “Often, people wait until they have a life-threatening infection.”

That may be one reason amputations are increasing for people who use drugs in Philadelphia. One theory is that decreased blood flow from xylazine keeps wounds from healing.

“We’re certainly seeing a lot more wounds, and we’re seeing some severe wounds,” said Dr. Joe D’Orazio, director of medical toxicology and addiction medicine at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. “Almost everybody is linking this to xylazine.”

This article is part of a partnership that includes WBURNPR, and KHN.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).