A 33-year-old male with a history of opioid overdose and opioid use disorder is admitted with IV heroin use complicated by injection site cellulitis. He is started on antibiotics with improvement in his cellulitis; however, his hospitalization is complicated by acute opioid withdrawal. Despite his history of opioid overdose and opioid use disorder, he has never seen a substance use disorder specialist nor received any education or treatment for his addiction. He reports that he will stop using illicit drugs but declines any further addiction treatment.
What strategies can be employed to reduce his risk of future harm from opioid misuse?
Over the past decade, the U.S. has experienced a rapid increase in the rates of opioid prescriptions and opioid misuse.1 Consequently, the number of ED visits and hospitalizations for opioid-related complications has also increased.2 Many complications result from the practice of injection drug use (IDU), which predisposes individuals to serious blood-borne viral infections such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV) as well as bacterial infections such as infective endocarditis. In addition, individuals who misuse opioids are at risk of death related to opioid overdose. In 2013, there were more than 24,000 deaths in the U.S. due to opioid overdose (see Figure 1).3
In response to the opioid epidemic, there have been a number of local, state, and federal public health initiatives to monitor and secure the opioid drug supply, improve treatment resources, and promulgate harm-reduction interventions. At a more individual level, hospitalists have an important role to play in combating the opioid epidemic. As frontline providers, hospitalists have access to hospitalized individuals with opioid misuse who may not otherwise be exposed to the healthcare system. Therefore, inpatient hospitalizations serve as a unique and important opportunity to engage individuals in the management of their addiction.
There are a number of interventions that hospitalists and substance use disorder specialists can pursue. Psychiatric evaluation and initiation of medication-assisted treatment often aim to aid patients in abstaining from further opioid misuse. However, many individuals with opioid use disorder are not ready for treatment or experience relapses of opioid misuse despite treatment. Given this, a secondary goal is to reduce any harm that may result from opioid misuse. This is done through the implementation of harm-reduction strategies. These strategies include teaching safe injection practices, facilitating the use of syringe exchange programs, and providing opioid overdose education and naloxone distribution.
Overview of Data
Safe Injection Education. People who inject drugs are at risk for viral, bacterial, and fungal infections. These infections are often the result of nonsterile injection and may be minimized by the utilization of safe injection practices. In order to educate people who inject drugs on safe injection practices, the hospitalist must first understand the process involved in injecting drugs. In Table 1, the process of injecting heroin is outlined (of note, other illicit drugs can be injected, and processes may vary).4
As evidenced by Table 1, the process of sterile injection can be complicated, especially for an individual who may be withdrawing from opioids. Table 1 is also optimistic in that it recommends new and sterile products be used with every injection. If new and sterile equipment is not available, another option is to clean the equipment after every use, which can be done by using bleach and water. This may mitigate the risk of viral, bacterial, and fungal infections. However, the risk is still present, so users should not share or use another individual’s equipment even if it has been cleaned. Due to the risk of viral, bacterial, and fungal infections, all hospitalized individuals who inject drugs should receive education on safe injection practices.