Helping patients prevent accidental drug overdoses caused by Fentanyl. | MedStar Health

Helping Patients Prevent accidental Drug Overdoses Caused by Fentanyl.

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Jerry Gross, a peer recovery coach at MedStar Health Harbor Hospital with a patient.

Pictured above: Jerry Gross, a peer recovery coach at MedStar Health Harbor Hospital, meets with a patient.

When Jerry Gross was battling an addiction to crack cocaine, he never doubted that the drugs his dealer supplied him contained anything other than cocaine.

Now, 21 years clean and sober, Gross says things are very different today for those with drug addictions.

“There used to be an honor code on the street,” says Gross, who now serves as a peer recovery coach at MedStar Harbor Hospital. “But these days, dealers are putting so many other substances into drugs, and people who use them have no idea what’s going into their bodies.”

One such substance is Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid similar to morphine but up to 100 times more potent.1 According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it takes very little Fentanyl to produce a high. Drug dealers have begun mixing it with heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, and other drugs.2 And what’s worse, those who use these drugs are often unaware that Fentanyl has been added because it typically cannot be detected.

This has made Fentanyl a leading contributor to fatal drug overdoses in Maryland. According to the Maryland Department of Health, 82% of cocaine-related deaths in 2018 occurred in combination with Fentanyl—a number that rose to 90% in 2020.3

To help community members suffering from drug addiction prevent fatal drug overdoses, MedStar Health hospitals became the first in the state to offer patients free test kits to detect Fentanyl.

All patients who arrive at MedStar Health emergency departments are screened for substance use disorders as part of the patient intake process. Any patient with a positive screen for high-risk behavior speaks with a peer recovery coach, who conducts a brief intervention and refers the patient to treatment, if appropriate.

Peer Recovery Coach Gross adds that if a patient is not immediately receptive to drug treatment options, he will mention the availability of Fentanyl test kits to help the patient practice safer habits.

Graphic showing the number of Fenanyl deaths in Maryland compared to deaths from other drugs.

“I say to them, ‘If you’re not yet ready for treatment, it’s ok, but at least take this kit to help protect yourself,’” he says. “Our approach is never to force anything on the patient. We try to empower and encourage them.”

That approach seems to be working.

Program Manager Daisy Butrim says that in the program’s first year, MedStar Health peer recovery coaches and other emergency department staff distributed about 5,000 test kits, with plans to increase distribution in 2023.

“I’m pleasantly surprised at how many test kits we’ve given out and how the community is receiving them,” says Butrim. “Even though it can be hard to change habits, the relationships that our peer recovery coaches have built with patients and the community help in establishing trust.”

Gross says the program tries to make it as easy as possible for patients to understand how to use the test kits. In fact, after noticing that many patients were taking the kit but leaving its long instruction sheet behind, program officials created smaller, card-sized instructions that are more convenient to carry and easier to understand.

“Our goal is to save lives,” says Gross. “So whatever steps we need to take to reduce harm, we’re going to do it.”



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