Pilot program connects medical providers on opioid addiction topic

AP

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The opioid epidemic has affected the nation, and the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley is not immune.

Idaho in general has a lack of specialists in the field, but a new program aims to connect medical and mental health providers to experts on opioid addiction and treatment.

Project Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (ECHO) launched in March. Housed in the University of Idaho WWAMI medical education department, sessions on various opioid-related topics are streamed through video conferences once every two weeks.

A few providers from Clearwater Medical Center joined the conversation from Lewiston on Thursday for the program's seventh session, which focused on addiction treatment and co-occurring mental health issues that could affect drug usage.

Lachelle Smith, program manager of ECHO Idaho, said the free resource for providers is greatly needed in Idaho, a state where only 109 psychiatrists are in practice.

"The whole state is a medical shortage area," Smith said. "It's fair to say there's not enough specialists in many, many communities. Even in Boise, there are long waits to see specialists. ... The whole idea about ECHO is let's demonopolize the medical knowledge and get it out into the communities."

For Geni Evans, a nurse practitioner at Clearwater, hearing other people across the state raise the same questions and concerns shows the L-C Valley is not alone.

"Everyone is working toward the same thing," she said.

Clearwater Nurse Practitioner Jessi Six, who cares for around 30 patients in the center's Suboxone program, said the number of patients over the past year has increased, although that also may have to do with prescription guidelines that changed last year. Suboxone reduces symptoms of opioid addiction and withdrawal symptoms.

"Opioids in general, it's a huge epidemic nationwide, and I think because people can't get the (pain medicine) prescriptions anymore, a lot more people are going to heroin," Six said. "We don't hear a lot about it in the valley. It feels like it's really hush-hush, but I see a lot of patients who couldn't get their hands on pain pills and so they go to heroin. But no one is talking about it."

ECHO is giving providers a new vehicle to talk about substance abuse, she said. It also allows providers to present cases to get feedback from others in the field.

"It's really helpful because we don't have the specialists around here, so it's kind of nice to hear from other people so we can tie everything together and make sure we are taking care of our specific patients as best as we can," Six said.

The pilot program is funded through January. Smith said the hope is to keep the program in the state by developing partnerships that would allow for long-term sustainability.

"We want to be here as long as there is a need. And sadly, I don't think this is going away," Smith said of opioid abuse. "We're new to Idaho, but (ECHO) has been going on for a long time. ... This is another way to help providers, so they don't feel so isolated in their efforts, especially in such a complicated and evolving issue."

Each ECHO session accounts for one continuing medical education credit for providers.

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Tomtas may be contacted at jtomtas@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2294.

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