Amid Addiction Crisis, Support Frontline Healthcare Workers

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Opioid addiction and behavioral health issues remain at crisis levels in U.S. communities, tearing apart families, devastating lives, and straining local emergency services and first responders. No one is immune as more than 500 people in the U.S. die every day from substance misuse and suicide. This doesn’t even account for the untold thousands who are struggling daily with mental health and drug abuse challenges. While there are many causes for these diseases, focus on prevention and treatment is key.  

Thankfully, Americans have been part of a paradigm shift allowing for people to come out of the shadows to seek care, and highly trained medical and behavioral workers are caring for these patients in advanced and compassionate ways. 

But in an October 2023 survey of hospitals, health systems, and medical groups, 63% of respondents said they are struggling to meet patients’ need for healthcare due to a nationwide shortage of healthcare professionals.  

Federal, state, and local governments are taking this mental health issue head on. 

On the federal level, the Department of Health and Human Services recently announced $46.8 million in behavioral health funding opportunities. The funding is designed to grow the behavioral health workforce, which is critical to overcoming the challenges facing so many Americans. 

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration has taken steps to support frontline workers. The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) recently announced an investment of more than $40 million to retain healthcare workers in the substance abuse field.

These actions reflect the mission of the Behavioral Health Council established by a 2023 executive order signed by Shapiro. That body brings together state leaders, local officials, and community providers to align on how to better deliver quality mental health and addiction care services.  

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu pioneered the Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative. The program recognizes businesses at the local level that support individuals with substance use disorders by designating “recovery friendly workplaces.” The successful initiative led to the launch of a similar program on the national level.

Improving access to and quality of patient care is the right objective, though it will be impossible without adequately supporting and sustaining the healthcare professionals caring for those patients.  

Amid this staffing shortage, current healthcare workers often work long hours and face stressful work environments where patients’ safety and well-being are on the line. In these situations, even highly trained and experienced professionals can make mistakes that result in adverse patient outcomes. After all, even the best healthcare workers are human.  

Sometimes these adverse patient outcomes occur even when no mistakes have been committed and healthcare workers have carefully followed all treatment protocols.

In situations when provider treatment results in an adverse health outcome for patients, extreme care should be taken in determining the correct response. Health professionals should be responsible and accountable for their decisions and actions, which they undertake in their sound professional knowledge, experience, and judgment. Case-by-case circumstances matter greatly, but inappropriately criminalizing healthcare decisions would have severe negative implications for our healthcare system and the patients whom we all serve.  

An exodus of sorts has already occurred within the healthcare sector. The New York Times reports that hundreds of thousands of professionals have left the medical field in recent years, as they have faced burnout, poor mental health, harassment, and other challenges. If healthcare practitioners think they could be charged criminally for a professional judgement call, an honest mistake, or even for closely adhering to the standard of care – all while they are asked to work longer and harder hours – many more workers would likely quit their jobs.  

That would add to the strain the current workforce shortage is already placing on our system and increase the risk for patients and providers alike. In addition, students and prospective workers would be far less likely to enter this important field. We are already seeing a breaking point in the healthcare system, with the federal government projecting substantial shortages for the behavioral health workforce in the future.

A recently signed bill in Kentucky recognizes this reality. The new law grants immunity from criminal liability to healthcare providers related to the provision of health services, while still outlawing gross negligence and malicious or intentional misconduct.

Government efforts to improve behavioral health and curb addiction must consider the effects any efforts may have on healthcare workers. Standing up for these workers while holding them appropriately accountable for their professional activities will help us overcome the crisis in addiction and mental health. 

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