Minnesota hospital leads state efforts to fight the opioid crisis, one patient at a time

A hospital prescription bottle was found at the scene of an overdose. In a county of just over 30,000 people, one of the four local pharmacies alone was filling prescriptions for 40,000 narcotic pills every single month.

Care team members at the local hospital knew they had to do something.

“We see an overdose death every three months in our county,” said Dr. Kurt DeVine, a physician at CHI St. Gabriel’s Health in Little Falls, Minnesota. “That’s devastating, and the reality is that it’s preventable.”

DeVine and fellow physician Dr. Heather Bell did what most of us would do – they sat down at their computers and started searching to see if a clinic or hospital had found a solution to their opioid problem. They soon learned that such a program did not exist. They would have to develop with their own solution to help their community – and they did.

CHI St. Gabriel’s brought together physicians, a social worker, a pharmacist and a dedicated nurse to form the Controlled Substance Care Team in their clinic, a group with the sole task of preventing and treating opioid misuse. The group immediately got to work monitoring patients prescribed narcotic medication to treat chronic pain. In order to be successful, it was crucial to establish a shared understanding that substance use disorder is a medical condition requiring treatment and that the team’s main purpose is to ensure that patients receive the physical and mental health treatment they need.

DeVine said, “Our goal is to do what we can do to help patients with their pain but decrease the narcotics coming out of our clinic.”

If the team determines a patient may not be following his or her prescription, they connect the patient with resources to treat his or her substance use disorder.

The Controlled Substance Care Team works closely with law enforcement partners, but the partnership’s motivation may be surprising: both hospital staff and local officers want to keep people out of jail.

“I can arrest people over and over and over again, but they don’t need jail,” said Deputy Jason McDonald, a local narcotics officer. “We need to get these people into treatment.”

It’s time to turn the tide on the opioid crisis.


Transforming a Minnesota community

It didn’t take long for the entire Little Falls community to see positive progress. Pain was the number one reason patients visited the emergency room when the program started in 2015. Today, pain doesn’t even make the top 20 reasons.

“When we prescribe fewer narcotics, we see fewer people in treatment, fewer people in our jails and fewer overdose deaths,” said DeVine.

The program’s success is clear. Over 340 patients have tapered off narcotic medications completely, which translates to 382,512 fewer pills entering the community each year.

Lee Boyles, the hospital’s president, credits collaboration for the program’s success. “We all own a little bit of this problem, and we knew we couldn’t solve it alone,” he said.

Monica, a patient who completed the program, sees it as an example of her neighbors’ commitment, “This is how we take care of issues – we don’t rag on drug addicts, we help them,” she said. “We don’t put them down. We lift them up and help them be successful.”

Bringing a fresh idea to the national conversation about opioid use

As communities across the country search for solutions to the opioid crisis, Minnesota has a community and clinic-based model that is working. That fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by lawmakers in Washington, D.C., who invited the Controlled Substance Care Team to testify to U.S. House and Senate staff about the program’s success.

Congressman Rick Nolan said the team’s solution to the opioid issue was a breath of fresh air at the Capitol. “Finally someone wasn’t just saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a really serious problem here!’ We have a model that works,” he said.

Bell hopes the team’s work makes an impact in other communities. “We started this program to help Little Falls and Morrison County. The fact that it’s picked up and brought us to Washington and around our state is very important to us,” said Bell. “We have an opportunity to help other communities do what we’ve done.”

Team members hope their model gives other communities a place to start. They have traveled the state of Minnesota to help other hospitals set up their programs.

Inspired by their success, the Minnesota Legislature has funded similar opioid pilot programs throughout the state, launching in spring 2018.

Turning the tide on the opioid epidemic in Minnesota

State grant funding made this unique program possible, but the solution isn’t a sustainable and scalable model without continued legislative funding.

It’s time for a long-term approach that will turn the tide on the opioid crisis across the entire state. Hospitals cannot do it alone. Please join our efforts to support a solution that works for all Minnesota communities.

Will you help us stop the opioid crisis in Minnesota?