Battling Opioid Epidemic with Science, Compassion
By Salwa Choucair
Many Americans believe it won’t happen to them or to one of their loved ones, but annual opioid-abuse statistics prove them wrong. The facts show that 130 Americans die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses: one every eight minutes. Additionally, two million Americans were diagnosed with an opioid use disorder last year alone.
“Addiction to opioids is the greatest health failure of our time,” says Jennifer S. Potter, Ph.D., M.P.H., vice dean for research and professor of psychiatry in the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio. “The good news, however, is that opioid use is treatable. The answer is science and compassion.”
Considered a national expert on opioid use and opioid use disorder, Dr. Potter has made opioids her life’s work. Her research focuses on the prevention and treatment of substance use disorders, and she has been awarded more than $8.5 million over the last few years to lead the charge for professional training, technical assistance and treatment services to combat the rising epidemic.
Ultimately, her goal is to help patients who suffer from opioid use disorder overcome the three barriers to treatment: access, affordability and society’s attitude.
“For too long, substance abuse treatment has operated outside of traditional health care, and as a result there have been misses in terms of opportunities to improve the quality and delivery of evidence-based treatment,” Dr. Potter says. “There is a role for us to play through medical education, in terms of offering treatment in traditional health care settings and in destigmatizing substance use disorder.”
In the fight to provide access to treatment, Dr. Potter and UT Health San Antonio have been entrusted with $7.2 million from the Texas Health and Human Resources and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration this fiscal year alone.
“This will help UT Health make a significant impact in the state of Texas,” says Dr. Potter, who explains that UT Health San Antonio has a unique opportunity because of its location near South Texas and the diverse cultures and views that make up the area. “There is a public health burden in San Antonio that we have a tremendous responsibility to attend to. Here, you have research; you have education; and then you also have the opportunity for action.”
Part of her action plan is eliminating the access barrier by increasing the number of health care providers across the state who may offer evidence-based buprenorphine treatment to their patients for opioid abuse disorder.
“We need to offer treatment on demand,” Dr. Potter says. “When someone seeks help, we should provide it immediately. They shouldn’t have to wait for weeks.”
Buprenorphine is the first FDA-approved medication used to treat opioid use disorder and permitted to be dispensed in physician offices, emergency rooms, clinics and hospitals, but a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) X-waiver is required before a provider may prescribe it legally.
The funding will help tear down the second barrier of affordability as well. Dr. Potter and her team have established the Texas Medication for Opioid Use Disorder, MOUD, a treatment network, which will help patients who otherwise would not be able to pay for evidence-based treatments.
“Services statewide will be expanded for those who are unable to pay, because often in the throes of substance abuse disorder, people lose their insurance or just can’t pay for treatment,” Dr. Potter says.
The last barrier to opioid abuse disorder is society’s attitude toward addiction and its treatment.
“For many of us, addiction is a weakness, a character flaw,” says Dr. Potter. “In reality, addiction is a disease and has been recognized by the American Medical Association for a very long time as such. Left untreated like diabetes or heart disease, the result is not good. We can’t wish it away. Our attitude about addiction and treatment make it harder to fight for those who are struggling. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, ‘Stigma is the enemy of public health.’ ”
As a public health professional, Dr. Potter, who as a child dreamed of being an actress, believes in showing and teaching compassion while researching and furthering science.
“We need compassion. Compassion is more than feeling sorry for someone. It is tolerating what we find to be uncomfortable, and it is taking action. Sometimes I think we have become so desensitized to suffering that we think we cannot make a difference, or that it is not our problem–not my kid; not my problem,” she says.
In fact, while advocating for evidence-based treatment for opioid abuse disorder, she encourages families, students and colleagues to educate themselves and be a part of the conversation necessary to change society’s attitude.
“Stand up for science. Ask your legislator, your doctor, your hospital. Ask them what they are doing to help end the opioid crisis. Educate yourself. Use your compassion. Treatment saves lives, and every life is worth saving.”
While Dr. Potter began her medical career researching pain, she turned her attention to opioid abuse disorder almost 20 years ago when she began noticing a spike in opioid overdose emergency room visits during her post-doctoral work in Massachusetts. Her experience with pain research instigated her interest.
“Today, we can’t just think of people who use opioids for pain as being substance abusers nor can we rule out that there is a risk associated with it. The fact remains that most people who receive an opioid for chronic pain don’t go on to abuse it,” she says. “The problem with opioids is much broader than any individual pain patient, it is about cultural issues and risks that far exceed any particular individual.”
What probably makes Dr. Potter most unique, however, is her perspective and experience. She fulfilled her childhood dream of being an actress, earning a bachelor’s degree in theater and starting her career, but the chance reading of a psychology textbook one weekend changed her direction. Using money she earned from her acting job, Dr. Potter put herself through graduate school and earned both a master’s degree in public health and then a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.
“I realized that what drew me to theater was human behavior,” she says. “That is the power of storytelling, giving you a look at someone else’s perspective, and that to me really does connect with public health, sharing stories and making a difference in people’s lives. The joy I have now is that I can be rooted in science and still have compassion.”
The opioid epidemic may be the role of her lifetime, and with her advocacy and research, Dr. Potter’s performance is nothing less than Oscar worthy.