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Health group gets $4.7 million to fight addiction

January 11, 2019

DANBURY - It would be hard to find a doctor’s office where waiting room patients aren’t asked to indicate on medical history forms whether they smoke.

Soon, it may be hard to find a doctor’s office where patients aren’t asked similar questions about their drinking and drugging habits.

In the meantime, the health network that runs Danbury and Norwalk hospitals is putting a plan in place to not only make alcohol and illicit drug questions standard on medical history forms, but to have more substance abuse experts on hand to follow up with patients whose answers indicate they may need help.

The Western Connecticut Health Network will use a recently announced $4.7 million federal grant to expand its screening-and-intervention procedure for alcohol and drugs at 10 of the network’s busiest medical group locations.

“This is an innovative approach in Connecticut to integrate behavioral health and primary care,” said Dr. Katherine Michael, medical director of community health for the Western Connecticut Health Network.

The health network’s 10-site plan may be innovative, but the screening-and-intervention procedure it’s using is not. The procedure is highlighted as a key intervention strategy for schools in the 2017 report of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

The goal is to help physicians identify and treat substance abuse early in the addiction cycle, when the disease is easiest to battle.

The opioid crisis is acute in greater Danbury and across Connecticut, which has one of the highest rates of opioid-related overdose deaths in the country. Connecticut also has one of the highest rates of adult binge drinking in the United States, according to the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

A “binge” is defined as five or more drinks in one sitting for a man, and four or more drinks in one sitting for a woman.

Greater Danbury physicians hear the stories in their examination rooms every day.

“It’s not uncommon in doctors’ offices to hear people come in and say things like “My job is so stressful,’ or ‘I worry about losing my job,’ and they fall down that slippery slope,” said Dr. Cornelius Ferreira, senior medical director for the Western Connecticut Medical Group. “Instead of counseling, they start on this process of self-medication.”

The health network has been practicing the screening-and-intervention procedure on a limited scale for the past three years.

With the grant money, WCHN will hire three more behavioral health consultants to be on hand in the event a patient is deemed to be at risk for alcohol or drug abuse.

In addition to Danbury, the procedure will be rolled out at nine other medical group sites including Brookfield, Ridgefield, New Fairfield, Newtown, Southbury, and Wilton.

The procedure reflects the growing understanding in the behavioral health sciences about how addiction is best treated.

For example, medical history questions about alcohol and drug use are phrased with the understanding that a patient might not want to answer them truthfully.

“We have done this with questionnaires to screen for depression and anxiety where there also may be some resistance to answer truthfully,” Ferreira said. “Sometimes the family will come in with the patient and say, ‘You know, the last time you didn’t fill this out honestly.’”

In the same way, the approach that behavioral health interventionists take is different than the confrontational approach that may have been used in the past.

“We use motivational interviewing techniques rather than the old style of telling the patient ‘If you don’t stop doing this you are going to die’ - that doesn’t work,” Michael said. “We try to rally the patient around a common goal, ask what he or she would like to change, and come up with a plan to make that change.”

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342

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