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Stopping addiction before it starts: Hackensack Meridian to launch addiction education and outreach program in HOPE Tower to combat opioid crisis

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From left, Dr. Ramon Solhkah, chairman, department of psychiatry for Jersey Shore Medical Center, and Dr. Joseph Miller, vice president, behavioral healthcare transformation services for Hackensack Meridian Health.  The two are pictured in front of HOPE Tower on the Jersey Shore Medical Center campus, which will open in 2018 and be home to The Christopher Center for Mental Health & Wellness.
From left, Dr. Ramon Solhkah, chairman, department of psychiatry for Jersey Shore Medical Center, and Dr. Joseph Miller, vice president, behavioral healthcare transformation services for Hackensack Meridian Health. The two are pictured in front of HOPE Tower on the Jersey Shore Medical Center campus, which will open in 2018 and be home to The Christopher Center for Mental Health & Wellness. - ()

Jersey Shore University Medical Center's new HOPE Tower is set to become the latest weapon in the fight against the opioid epidemic.

JSUMC’s parent, Hackensack Meridian Health, is launching an outreach program on addiction in HOPE Tower that will be based on a simple premise: treat addiction early, rather than when a patient is dying from an overdose.

The outreach program will operate on the ninth floor of the tower, and make use of the 10th floor   auditorium to facilitate educational lectures and conferences on addiction to opioids and other substances.

HOPE Tower, which is expected to open in January 2018, was originally designed for research and cancer treatment, but with a potential grant from donors Marilyn and Phil Perricone in honor of their son, part of it will be dedicated to the addiction  program. The final beam of the $265 million HOPE Tower was placed a year ago during a topping off ceremony.

Dr. Ramon Solhkhah, chairman of JSUMC’s Department of Psychiatry, told NJBIZ that the tower will be anchored by the cancer research center on the first two floors. The outreach program was added in conjunction with a potential donation from the Perricones of Wall, NJ, in honor of their son Christopher, who passed away suddenly at the age of 35, he said.

The original plan for a five or six story tower anchored by the cancer center grew over time and  psychiatry and behavioral health were included, said Dr. Solhkhah. “The goal of the new program will be to educate primary care physicians, family members of addiction sufferers, employers and patients directly on the early signs of addiction,” he said. It will be an extension to NJSCU’s Christopher Center, an outpatient facility located a few miles away that directly treats patients suffering from opioid and other addictions.

“Most people have a relationships with their primary care physicians, so as we educate the primary care network, we can get them comfortable with identifying these disorders so they can make appropriate referrals to treatment,” said Dr. Solhkhah, adding that one in four adult Americans is affected by a substance abuse disorder. “We want to catch it at stage one so that family members can recognize it, primary care physicians can recognize it and people can recognize it in themselves and get treatment early.”

New Jersey has been hit particularly hard by the national opioid epidemic. In 2014, the state had the sixth highest number of emergency room visits per capita for opioid addiction in the nation, according to data gathered by the Agency for Healthcare Research. Gov. Chris Christie declared the opioid epidemic a public health crisis at the beginning of the year.

State health care experts have been largely confounded by the crisis, and have warned that the best solution may be to stop prescribing opioid-based pain killers and look for alternative treatments for pain management.

Dr. Solhkhah said that one of the ways in which the outreach program will be different is that it will categorize the disease of addiction with mental illness.

“As a doctor we’re always taught to treat addictions and mental illness totally separately. That never made sense to me,” he said. “How to do you separate this part of the person from that part of the person? I’ve always been someone who appreciated an integrated model that takes care of the whole person. You can’t be a behavioral health practitioner and not deal with addiction because if you don’t think you are, you’re kidding yourself and doing a disservice to your patients.”

He emphasized that the program will help businesses in New Jersey. “You can’t really estimate all the money that has been lost due to patients missing work because of their addictions,” and family members missing work to take care of them, he said.

For Dr. Joseph Miller, a psychiatrist and vice president of behavioral health at JSUMC who will be part of the program, educating people early on about addiction is personal.

“I started out my medical training in the South Bronx at the tail end of the crack epidemic in the emergency room, and I decided that pronouncing kids dead in the ER from overdoses was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my life,” he said. “I wanted to be working with kids who are affected earlier on, so I made the switch to psychiatry and got my training in addiction psychiatry, and that was part of the reason I was recruited here.”

The program will be kicked off with a day-long symposium, “Substance Use Disorders in 2017: Tackling the Opioid Epidemic & More,” on Wednesday, October 25, at the Sheraton Eatontown Hotel. The keynote speaker will be Patrick Kennedy, a former U.S. Representative from Rhode Island and nephew to former President John F. Kennedy, who will talk about his own battle with addiction.

“To be able to host a full day symposium takes the subject of addiction further out of the shadows and shows that it is okay to talk about it like any other disease,” Dr. Solhkhah said. Patrick Kennedy has a compelling story to tell, he said. “When we host events like this, to have someone like him come to anchor the discussion will be a very inspiring. We’re hoping it will be a call to action for those suffering from addiction.”

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Vince Calio

Vince Calio


Vince Calio covers health care and manufacturing for NJBIZ. You can contact him at vcalio@njbiz.com.

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