FILE PHOTO: A sign giving direction to a hospital's emergency department. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Area hospitals ramp up work to curb opioid crisis

CINCINNATI -- The region's largest health systems are teaming to tackle the opioid crisis in ways that local leaders hope will make it easier for more residents to begin treatment. 

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Emergency rooms across Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have been inundated in recent years with a spike in patients who have overdosed on potent opioids. Nearly 70 area residents are overdosing each week, local first responders have said. 

How to better care for those patients once they arrive in a local emergency room and connect them with treatment options has been a key discussion among the local health and community leaders. 

RELATED: Are our healthcare leaders doing enough to battle the heroin epidemic?

"We know there are gaps between someone being admitted to an emergency department and connecting them with treatment. Too many times people are just leaving the ED," said Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus. She leads the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition and has championed the call for a regional approach for residents battling addiction that's focused on healthcare solutions. "It takes the entire system to be on board to really make an impact."

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The new collective strategy will go far beyond the emergency department, said Sara Bolton, the program's lead director at The Health Collaborative. The nonprofit is spearheading the new effort, which includes participation from Mercy Health, TriHealth, St. Elizabeth, The Christ Hospital Network, UC Health and Cincinnati Children's Medical Center.

Under the program, consistent protocols will be put in place when a patient arrives showing signs of addiction or drug abuse at each the health system's emergency departments and in their respective primary care doctor's offices. The effort also calls on each of the systems to share best practices and get the training needed to help more local residents better battle addiction.

"It is this kind of work that will lay the foundation for the answers that will eliminate this crisis," said Richard Lofgren, president and CEO of UC Health. "We are in this together -- our neighbors and our communities are counting on us."

More specifically, the program focuses on four key areas: 

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The Health Collaborative says it's focused for now on helping each of the six participating health care systems implement the new strategies. 

"The efforts are all in varying stages at each of the health care systems, and some are a little further along than others," she said. 

Longer term, the Health Collaborative hopes to roll out the same strategies to more rural hospitals and health care systems. 

"The key for much of this work is to shift the way we think about substance abuse disorders as a community," Bolton said. "The more we know about addiction, the better we are at understanding this very much like other chronic conditions -- like diabetes or high blood pressure -- that patients need help managing."