IU Health sees more than 20 percent increase in overdose patients in 2020


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INDIANAPOLIS, In. – As hospitals were taking in COVID-19 patients, emergency rooms across the country were also seeing an uptick in overdose patients.

In mid-December, the CDC issued a health advisory to medical and public health professionals which noted an increase in fatal drug overdoses across the country driven by synthetic opioids.

While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the pandemic, the CDC said latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths since the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, IU Health saw a nearly 23 percent increase in patients having a primary diagnosis of a drug overdose. That is 262 more patients than 2019.  The hospital network said there was also a roughly 25 percent increase in healthcare workers administering Naloxone to save lives compared to 2019.

“The age brackets are varied,” said Dr. Jessica Knopp, an emergency physician at IU Health West. “There is not any one demographic that stands out as the most affected. The people who suffer from addiction come from all walks of life and all age brackets.”

Synthetic opioids, primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl, appear to be the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths, according to the CDC.

Dr. Knopp explained about half of overdoses they see in the emergency department involve a prescription drug as well.

“The pandemic was a perfect storm of isolation and emotional and financial stresses that was an unfortunate trigger to a lot of people suffering from addiction,” she said.

At more than 10 emergency departments within the IU Health system, there’s a virtual behavior health team ready to help patients who come in for a suspected overdose. The team is comprised of peer recovery coaches and a group of behavioral health specialists.

“We just have honest and candid conversations. All of us are in recovery ourselves so that allows us to speak from our own experiences as well,” said Spencer Medcalf, a lead recovery coach.

Medcalf understands what these patients are going through. He discovered pain killers at the age of 16. By the age of 19, he was a heroin user. He turned 29 in October and he will celebrate 4 years of sobriety this April.

This year, his teams’ service has never been more crucial.

“Hopefully that is more opportunity that they can interface whether that is myself or other behavioral health team members and hopefully as a team we can promote that access to recovery,” he said.

If you are struggling with addiction, there is help. You can call Indiana 211 where you can find recovery support or be connected to services in your area.

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