'Tweener' hospital takes charge in drug abuse, community health

The leading cause of death in Ohio isn't car crashes or suicide; it's drug abuse.

That isn't a statistic Fairfield Medical Center in Lancaster takes lightly. Although it's a 222-bed nonprofit hospital, described as a "tweener hospital" with limited reimbursements, part of its mission is community health and, specifically, the rampant drug problem in the state.

The Fairfield County Opiate Task Force started three years ago by the local Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Board to address abuse related to the notorious prescription and street drugs dilemma.

The task force has been "very eye-opening, such as cases of a patient with two doctors who are prescribing the same thing," Mina Ubbing, president and CEO of Fairfield Medical Center and FierceHealthcare advisory board member, said in an interview. "In essence, [patients are] getting access to doubles."

"We're the first in the area to adopt a policy that our emergency room will not refill opiate prescriptions given by others.

The volunteer task force is made up hospital staff, local law enforcement, including the sheriff and chief of police, social service agencies, business owners, recovery centers, as well as volunteers from the community. The volunteers also help fundraise with an annual bike race that has brought in up to $75,000 in its third year, according to Ubbing.

The task force reaches out to providers with education about the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System, better known as OARRS, a state database that provides patients' prescription drug history to identify possible drug-seeking patients.

Physicians may not realize they are prescribing potentially addictive drugs beyond what the patients' condition calls for. In addition to professional trainings for medical and dental professionals and the task force implementing proper drug disposal days, the hospital instituted a policy in its emergency department not to refill opiates, Ubbing said.

"As an outcome of the opiate task force, we're the first in the area to adopt a policy that our emergency room will not refill opiate prescriptions given by others," Ubbing explained.

For instance, if a patient presents to the ED, looking for a refill on pain medication, the physician will not fill the Rx. "That doesn't mean they won't prescribe opiates in appropriate conditions. We discovered there's a lot of emergency-room shopping," Ubbing said.

According to Ubbing, the hospital has seen drug abuse first start with prescriptions but advance to harder street drugs, including heroine, methamphetamine and, more recently, bath salts.

Approximately 25 percent of patients treated for drug addiction in Fairfield Medical Center's ED started "innocently" because of legitimate injury or surgery, according to the task force.

"It's a progression. When they run out of money or access to prescription drugs, they turn to street drugs, which are cheaper," Ubbing said.

For families affected by drug abuse, the task force offers support groups and social networking. The hospital also "wrote the manual" for adoptive parents of babies born addicted, offering an educational program on the special needs of those infants.

Since 2000, demand for opioid addiction treatment in Fairfield County has increased 500 percent, according to the website. And according to Ubbing and community surveys, drug use is down.

"It's something that we're proud to say as a hospital and as a community, we acknowledge the problem's there, and are working proactively to mitigate it," Ubbing said.

For more information:
- see the OARRS website
- read the task force website, brochure and annual report (.pdfs)
- here's the bike race info
- here's the Facebook page
- check out the FierceHealthcare advisory board

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