Conference Coverage

For some opioid overdose survivors, stigma from clinicians hinders recovery


AT CPDD 2018

– After an opioid-related overdose, intentions to reduce opioid use or injection are often complicated by unmanaged withdrawal symptoms and perceptions of disrespect from first responders and/or hospital staff, results from a small, exploratory study suggest.

“The opportunity for getting someone out of an overdose experience and into harm reduction, medication-assisted treatment, whatever it may be, is great,” lead study author Luther C. Elliott, PhD, said in an interview at the annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence. “But the stigmatizing experiences of survivors tend to lead them in a beeline out of the emergency department.”

Doug Brunk/MDedge News

Luther C. Elliott, PhD

In an effort to better understand the impacts of nonfatal overdose on subsequent substance abuse patterns and overdose risk behaviors, Alex S. Bennett, PhD, Dr. Elliott, and Brett Wolfson-Stofko, PhD, interviewed 20 recent overdose survivors about their experiences. All study participants had been administered naloxone by a professional first responder and taken to an emergency department via ambulance. Next, the researchers juxtaposed their narratives with perspectives from nine emergency medical technicians (EMTs), six emergency department staff members, and six medical staff members.

“Each stakeholder was asked about their experiences with opioid-involved overdose and about the potential for staging effective interventions with persons who have been recently reversed,” explained Dr. Elliott, a medical anthropologist at the New York City–based National Development and Research Institutes.

The researchers found that 67% of EMT/emergency medical services (EMS) personnel had a history of discussing opioid-related overdose or need for treatment, while 57% had self-reported fatigue or burnout with opioid-related overdose patients. For example, one EMT/EMS study participant described responding to overdose calls as taxing. “It takes away from what I would call real patients. …When I hear you took this drug by yourself and I have to go save [you], how is that fair?”

All nine emergency medicine physicians queried had a history of intervening and self-reported fatigue or burnout with opioid-related overdose patients. One physician response was as follows: “If I’m going to see the same person over and over again, I’ve tried my best to help you and you go back to the same thing over and over again, at some point, I’m not going to have any compassion.”

Of the 20 survivors, 30% indicated no reported change in their behavioral disposition after the overdose, 10% reported delayed change, and 60% reported immediate change. Barriers to change, expressed by some of the survivors, included receiving higher doses of naloxone than necessary to reverse an opioid-related overdose, and perceived disrespect from emergency department staff. For example, one survivor contended that hospital staff “left me in the hallway. I kept asking for water and they’re like, ‘We have none.’ They brought me some ice chips finally to shut me up, because I kept trying to walk out.”

Dr. Elliott said he was surprised to learn how much EMS staff and emergency medicine physicians attempted informal interventions by just talking with survivors. “They’ve used a combination of shaming techniques, like, ‘Do you realize you almost died? You’ve got to stop using drugs.’ The stigmatizing attitudes combined with the willingness and the desire to intervene were most surprising to me. There is a great opportunity here for psychotherapeutic knowledge to bear on how we interact with overdose survivors.”

In their abstract, he and his associates wrote that providing stakeholders “with even a brief general introduction to psychosocial interventions and sample scripts of supportive, motivational, and nonstigmatizing conversations between caregivers and the people experiencing opioid dependency may represent a positive advance in this direction.”

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The authors reported having no financial disclosures and said the study content is solely their responsibility – and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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