From overdose to treatment, addicts given 'warm handoff'

WEST READING, Pa. - Reading Health System has unveiled a new program to help people struggling with drug addictions.

It's called the "warm handoff" program. The hospital launched it Tuesday with Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania's physician general, and Jennifer Smith, the state's acting secretary of drug and alcohol programs, on hand for the kickoff event.

The hospital will now have addiction experts on hand to help people who go to the emergency room with drug-related problems and addictions. Those experts will help drug users seek treatment.

"And we have the ability with our partners at TASC [Treatment Access and Services Center] to have a recovery specialist meet with that person 24/7 and get them into the treatment that they need," said Dr. Charles Barbera, chair of emergency medicine for Reading Hospital.

"Berks County and Reading Hospital have done a great job in getting overdose survivors to enter treatment and Dr. Chuck Barbera can provide a model for the best way to do it," Smith said.

Reading Hospital said it sees about one to three overdose cases each day. Officials said the experts are trained in helping people with all kinds of addictions, but the program will focus on helping those addicted to opioids.

"With the number of overdoses increasing in Pennsylvania, we must focus on first reversing the heroin/opioid overdose with naloxone, and then when survivors are revived, getting them into immediate treatment," said Smith. "A warm handoff is a way to encourage overdose survivors usually transported to emergency rooms for observation to agree to enter treatment."

The number of deaths from heroin/opioid overdoses in Pennsylvania was more than 3,500 in 2015 and is expected to be much higher in 2016.

"It is crucial to ensure that we expand access to naloxone as proposed in Gov. Wolf’s budget and also get those who are saved by naloxone into treatment," Levine said. "Reading Hospital and the Berks County Council on Chemical Abuse have developed a state-of-the-art program that does just that and we recognize their incredible work to defeat the disease of addiction in Pennsylvania."

The warm handoff protocol will be distributed statewide for recommended use by emergency room physicians and other health care professionals treating overdose patients.

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