Substance-Abuse Crisis: Two Hospitals Add Recovery Coaches In Emergency Departments

March 16, 2017

In her time as nurse manager of the Emergency Department at Windham Hospital, Meghan Hilliard has seen firsthand the devastation caused by addiction and substance-use disorders in her community. But for all the clinical resources that her department can bring to help revive someone experiencing an alcohol or drug-related overdose, Hilliard and her staff often felt frustrated knowing that the same patient may well return the next day needing the same care.

“Everyone knows this is a serious problem in our community, but there’s only so much front-line emergency room staff can do to address the underlying addiction that leads to overdoses,” Hilliard said. “We can refer a patient to long-term treatment until we’re blue in the face, but we can only hope that they will listen to us.”

That’s why Hilliard was thrilled when leadership within the Behavioral Health Network notified her that they were planning to assign trained recovery coaches to assist substance-abuse patients in the emergency departments at Windham and Backus hospitals.

“It’s such a wonderful way to offer needed support for these patients,” Hilliard said. “With recovery coaches, these patients will be hearing from people who have a background that gives them special authority and credibility — they have been there themselves.”

Recovery coaches have experience with achieving recovery, which can be helpful to people at the beginning of that journey. These recovery coaches have received extensive training in supporting others who are struggling with substance use disorders, offering insights on their own experiences as a way to provide hope.

“These are people who can reach patients in ways that most others can’t because their message is so personal and so powerful,” said Patricia Rehmer, president of the Behavioral Health Network, who is a strong advocate for introducing recovery coaches into healthcare settings.

Rehmer said coaches will be assigned to respond to overdose and other drug-related emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on an on-call basis. Whenever an overdose patient comes into the ED, front-line staff can contact the recovery coach to have them come in and work directly with the patient after they have received emergency care.

“Our goal is for this to eventually be extended to hospitals across the Hartford HealthCare system,” Rehmer said. She pointed out that the ongoing epidemic in opioid and heroin abuse contributed to a record number of drug-related overdose fatalities in Connecticut in 201 — more than 900 deaths. She said the crisis points to the need for involvement from those who have “lived” experience.

“If you’re feeling hopeless and lost, it can be a very powerful thing to see someone who went through the same thing and is now living a happy and meaningful life,” she said.