We are all in this together! I am sure most us know someone who has been impacted by the opioid crisis in one way or another. Opioid addiction is local and is affecting Aitkin County and our surrounding communities.

Riverwood Healthcare Center, along with other Minnesota hospital and health systems, is working with community partners to find solutions and make a difference. In Spring 2018, Riverwood was one of eight Minnesota health systems to receive a two-year grant for the creation of an opioid program to address prevention and addiction issues. We recently learned that the Minnesota Department of Health has extended the original grant for another three years, 2019 through 2021, to Riverwood and seven other organizations.

Over the past year and a half, Riverwood has made significant progress in addressing the opioid crisis locally. One of the key goals of our opioid abuse and prevention program is to reduce inappropriate use of opioids by patients and rates of opioid addiction. Riverwood’s efforts have included evaluating and reducing opioid prescription drug use among patients and connecting them with alternative programs for pain management.

We’ve implemented a standardized system for prescribing chronic pain medications for all providers and patients to follow to eliminate the high risk of overprescribing narcotic medications and potential addiction. A key change is that the length and amount of opioid prescription medications are now much more limited, following Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

Another key initiative is offering medication-assisted treatment for those struggling with opioid addiction. Last fall, Riverwood began offering Suboxone treatment for those addicted to opioid medications. Dr. Melissa Herbranson, a family medicine physician who is certified to prescribe and oversee Suboxone treatment, provides compassionate, professional care that is private and confidential.

Another form of medication-assisted treatment is Vivitrol, a once-a-month injection that works by attaching and blocking opioid receptors that are associated with the pleasure aspect of drug use. Janet Larson, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, oversees this treatment within our Behavioral Health services.

As part of the initiative to reach patients addicted to opioid drugs, Riverwood hired a designated registered nurse coordinator, Renee Senich. She’s the first point of contact for anyone who wants to pursue treatment for substance abuse related to opiates or narcotics. She meets with patients when they come in for monthly appointments to help with any concerns about medications or other treatment-related issues.

Riverwood has been working closely with Dr. Kurt Devine and his team at CHI St. Gabriel’s Health in Little Falls, which has a successful and nationally recognized opioid reduction strategy, to design our own program. This includes the formation of an internal controlled substance care team, which has been meeting monthly at Riverwood since Summer 2018. Members include physicians, pharmacists, social workers, nurse care coordinators, and mental health professionals.

We have also engaged partners outside of the health care system to address root causes of opioid abuse and addiction at the community level. Together with community partners, we formed the Aitkin County Opioid Task Force in June 2018. In addition to Riverwood, members include local school districts for Aitkin, Hill City and McGregor; Aitkin City Police; Aitkin County Health and Human Services; Aitkin County Sheriff’s Department; Northland Counseling; and local retail pharmacies.

The task force has embraced a collaborative approach to opioid abuse and prevention with a key focus on raising awareness in the community. For example, we partnered with the Little Falls health system to bring a young woman and her physician to talk about the road to recovery from opioid addiction for two programs at the Aitkin and McGregor schools in October 2018. Partnering with the University of Minnesota, Aitkin County Public Health offered three community forums on substance use in Spring 2019. Dr. Herbranson and Riverwood Pharmacy Director Spencer Page spoke at the forums.

Many of the organizations in the task force have also done their own work on opioid abuse and prevention. Together, we have identified targeted solutions through innovative local programs to tackle issues of opioid misuse and addiction treatment. We look forward to continuing this important work with more progress in reducing opioid addiction and lost lives.

I want to applaud the individuals who have had the courage to take the first step toward fighting their opioid addiction by seeking help. In our society there still seems to be such a stigma around opioids and behavioral health. These walls need to be torn down for us to feel free to talk about our challenges and seek help from available resources.

In addition, I want to thank the many individuals involved in different task forces, committees and initiatives aimed at providing compassionate and respectful care to individuals who are seeking help. If you are struggling with taking the next step, I encourage you to call Renee Senich today at 218-429-3907 to start a conversation and find out how to receive help. We are all in this together!.

Todd Sandberg is the chief executive officer for Riverwood Healthcare Center, overseeing a 25-bed hospital in Aitkin and three clinics in Aitkin, Garrison, and McGregor.

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