Creating Systems of Change

Heart of Florida Healthcare (HFHC) explores strategies to battle opioid addiction. 

It’s easy to hide substance abuse. Overdoses tend to go unreported. Addicts may not know where to turn. For many, death could find them before they find help.

Opioid addiction has been an alarming issue in Marion County for some time, but now the Heart of Florida Health Center is taking strides to treat those at the center of the crisis.

“The truth of the matter is we all probably know someone with some sort of substance abuse problem and may not be aware,” offers Chief Medical Officer Tabatha Downey, MD. “It can affect all of us.”

HFHC offers extensive primary care services from dental to maternal to behavioral health care for patients from maternity to adult. Services are accessible for all patients regardless of their ability to pay.

In December, HFHC received the green light to roll out a formal opioid treatment program. It’s a two-pronged approach with a foundation in behavioral health.

Certified providers can administer medication to treat symptoms of withdrawal. Medical treatment is also paired with integrated behavioral health therapy, giving patients the emotional assistance to live their daily lives.

Some patients come in with at least 90 days of abstinence. It’s a small victory for a large problem. Dr. Downey reports that she has seen an overwhelmingly positive response.

“The patients who are truly committed to making these changes express a lot of gratitude,” Dr. Downey offers. “Patients have told me they look forward to coming to visit because they’re excited about another milestone.”

The goal is to create a safe place to treat substance abuse. Licensed clinicians and caseworkers help patients make lifestyle changes on a case-by-case basis. Patients can learn coping strategies such as how to handle conflict or reach out for help. Dr. Downey explains that evidence shows how integrating therapy has reduced the likelihood of relapse during recovery.

“It means these patients are dealing with other issues that led to the opioid abuse or use,” she asserts. “Getting to the bottom of those issues is very important and critical in the patient’s success.”

In the past, pain was placed on a pedestal. Healthcare providers were encouraged to prescribe opioids when pain control was the crux of patient treatment. Now, the pendulum has swung in a different direction, putting doctors in a dilemma.

“I do feel that the healthcare system has a responsibility to come up with solutions for our patients,” Dr. Downey says. “If people are not aware that it’s even a problem, they may not think to refer somebody to the resources we have available.”

HFHC sees community collaboration as the key to making strides against opioid addiction and is offering Medication-Assisted Treatment training to help primary care providers administer medication. Other programs in place to tackle this issue are the Heroin/Opioid Task Force of Marion County and the Ocala Police Department’s Heroin/Opioid Amnesty Program.

Dr. Downey believes this is just a first step for HFHC in response to the opioid crisis and looks forward to a time when they will be able to offer additional services.

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