Hospital Addiction Consult Teams Seek to Fight Stigma, Meet Needs

November 2, 2023

As people continue to suffer with the many preventable side effects of not having a safe drug supply, Addiction Consult Teams (ACT) aim to mitigate the crisis by offering multidisciplinary, stigma-free care in the hospital setting.

Addiction Consult Teams differ hospital-to-hospital and are still not offered by many. But they typically include three complementary specialists: a covering physician who is boarded in addiction medicine (which means having completed a subspecialty certification for the evaluation and care of people with substance use-related diagnoses); a social worker trained in working with vulnerable populations; and a certified peer with lived experience. 

Combined, they can provide support and advocacy for hospital patients who use drugs, as well as potentially lifesaving medical interventions such as medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD).

“I think what initially triggered the need was the increasing rates of patients self-discharging early.”

Marginalized people who use drugs face a litany of untreated medical needs, including both physical harms related to drug use under prohibition and disproportionately skyrocketing co-occurring disorders. One shameful contributing factor is how hostile many health care settings have been for drug users.

Consult teams have previously existed for multiple medical specialties, but ACT have been spreading only recently. As of 2019, “more than half a dozen” hospital-based services of this kind existed in North America; while more exist now, they’re still absent from most health care systems.  

“I think what initially triggered the need for a specialized team in hospitals was the increasing rates of patients self-discharging early,” Dr. Sam Huo, who is boarded in addiction medicine and has worked on ACT in both Camden, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, told Filter. “We needed to at least keep patients comfortable enough through their withdrawal in order to support their medical needs, and being able to have a specialized team to support their care also helps to mitigate stigma that may intentionally or unintentionally exist in the care space.”  

Sherry, a Philadelphia resident who preferred that a pseudonym be used, has had many past experiences of stigma in health care settings. But she described how the hospital ACT changed things for her during one visit.

“If it wasn’t for an advocate that intervened, I would have never been admitted and never have received the supportive tools.”

“I remember sitting in the emergency room and a nurse and security guard tried to make me leave, because I fell asleep and I missed my name being called,” Sherry told Filter. “If it wasn’t for an advocate that intervened and explained my need for pain management, I would have never been admitted and never have received the series of supportive tools that followed.”  

Upon admission, Sherry was visited by members of the ACT at various stages. During these interactions, she said, they validated her traumas and the discomfort she was experiencing. She felt that they were on her side, and that—for once—she could actually trust a health care worker. 

Beginning in 2020, Sherry experienced homelessness in Kensington, Philadelphia, having returned to using drugs in order to help her cope with the loss of her mother. Many things added to her distress in this period. One of them was not being able to regularly wash or care for her long, vibrant hair. 

“My hair was so matted from living on the street, and then having spent all that time in a hospital bed it got worse,” she said.

In this context, a simple gesture held great meaning for her. “The nurses and team brought me in real shampoo and conditioner, and they sat on my bed with oils and combs to help work through my hair. We bonded as women and I felt like a human being and not a patient.” 

“After a review of the first year, we saw that having a consult service actually led to reduced overdose mortality for our patient population.”

Dr. Deanna Wilson, boarded in addiction medicine, works in conjunction with the ACT in Philadelphia. Calling ACT implementation both necessary and possible, she said it’s vital for providers like her to get structural buy-in by making the case for these services to health care systems.

“In my previous role, we started with a pilot addiction consult service, and pretty quickly received multiple referrals across the hospital, which helped prove the apparent need we were anecdotally recognizing,” Wilson told Filter. “On a functional level, we were able to provide medications to folks that otherwise would not have access.” 

This had a tangible lifesaving impact, she continued. “After a review of the first year, we saw that having a consult service actually led to reduced overdose mortality for our patient population. This was largely [through] having a specialized team starting patients on MOUD during their hospital stay.”  

An inpatient stay buys time for a person to be able to have their care properly addressed, their medications managed, and for medically supported induction, if they wish, on either buprenorphine or methadone (within strict limitations, due to federal methadone restrictions). It can also give social workers time to begin navigating around various needs that cannot be addressed in an overnight or weekend stay. 

“We all have an equal seat at the table each morning during rounds, and collecting those different viewpoints help us make a cohesive plan.”

As well as assisting patients directly, the ACT model may prompt providers to think differently.

Eric Ezzi is a Certified Recovery Specialist (CRS) who himself identifies as in recovery. He works as part of the Philadelphia ACT, alongside Drs. Huo and Wilson, and said that this role has helped to reshape how he approaches folks on his caseload.

Ezzi’s personal background is in 12-step programs and abstinence-based recovery, which he described as “my stepping stone into this world.” However, his ACT work has underlined to him that there should be no one-size-fits-all approach. 

“Being on a team that is interdisciplinary has helped me strengthen my toolkit of options for people,” Ezzi told Filter, “whether it’s just friendly support, connecting them to meetings, SMART Recovery, or MOUD options. From 8-4:30 you don’t have a singular version of me as a CRS, you have me as a person that can offer you the multiple forms of support that exist, and it is my job to continuously grow within that.” 

“I work with people that are willing to challenge their own expertise and listen to what each person has to offer in terms of care for a patient,” he continued. “We all have an equal seat at the table each morning during rounds, and collecting those different viewpoints help us make a cohesive plan. I think its best practice for each and every one of our patients to have a doctor’s viewpoint, a social worker’s viewpoint and a peer’s viewpoint, because our folks have complex needs that all deserve to be met. If we have a patient-first approach, this is what it looks like.”

As for Sherry, she’s currently in recovery housing, after the hospital ACT helped her secure a scholarship to live there for a few weeks. This, she said, “has allowed me to focus on my healing and not immediately stress out about needing a job to make rent. They also set me up with a prepaid phone, and without that, I wouldn’t be talking to you today or be able to call my aunt who helps care for my child.”

Addiction Consult Teams can only play a small role in mitigating the deep structural issues that harm people who use drugs. But if implemented effectively, they can make big differences in individuals’ health care experiences and broader lives, reducing both overdose risk and co-occurring harms.



Photograph via Pxhere/Public Domain

Brittany Salerno

Brittany Salerno, MPH, manages substance use research in a Philadelphia-based emergency department. She takes pride in compassionately supporting her patients and navigating them to the best level of care possible in the acute care setting. Her passions include targeting interventions to mitigate stigma and racial disparities across public health, drug policy reform, and documentary-style photography for social change.

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