Opioids in Philadelphia: The Obstacles and Opportunities in Addressing a Public Health Crisis

Date: September, 2017

Graceann Palmarella 

(Above left) Jennifer Pinto-Martin, PhD, MPH, Center for Public Health Initiatives Executive Director, delivering the opening remarks.

(Above right) Jeffrey Hom beginning his talk to a sold out room in Bodek Lounge.

Over 200 people joined the Center for Public Health Initiatives on Thursday, September 21st, to hear from CPHI Fellow Jeffrey Hom, MD MPH, Policy Advisor for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, about the opioid crisis facing Philadelphia. Members of the audience came from schools and departments across Penn, as well as outside government and community-based organizations. There were even community advocates among the crowd.

Dr. Hom discussed this epidemic, with a focus on the epidemiology of opioid use and overdose, the recommendations from the Mayor's Task Force, and the public health opportunities to overcome the many challenges in this crisis. 

(Above left) Jeffrey Hom delivering the staggering statistic that enough opioids were prescribed in Philadelphia for every person to have 29 days of OxyContin.

(Above right) Jeanmarie Perrone, MD and Carolyn Cannuscio, ScD were among many in the audience who work on this very important issue.

The unfortunate truth in this city is that Philadelphia has the purest and cheapest form of heroin. Drug overdoses killed 907 people in Philadelphia in 2016, three times the number of homicides. Eighty percent of these involved an opioid, including heroin and fentanyl. Simply put, drug overdoses have become a leading cause of death in Philadelphia. In 2016, they were the number one cause of death among people ages 15-44, the number two cause of death among people ages 45-54, and the number three cause of death among people ages 55-64. Those are deeply troubling numbers. More information on the statistics can be found in this CPHI Data Brief.

(Above left) Guests left with tangible actions that we can all take to combat the epidemic. Dr. Hom advised all members of the audience to get trained and carry naloxone, the drug used to reverse opioid overdose. Pennsylvania's "Standing Order" that began in March 2016 made naloxone accessible and obtainable through pharmacies. Hom described use as being as simple as Flonase and urged all to begin to carry this life-saving drug.

(Above right) Jeffrey Hom also suggested that we begin to change our language around this issue to reduce the stigma surrounding it. As a physician himself, he offered up the point that providers are trained to use person-first language as opposed to labels. For example, "a person with with asthma" is used instead of "Asthmatics" and "a person with diabetes" as opposed to "Diabetics". So how is the use of "Addicts" or "Schizophrenics" different? As quoted from Former US Drug Czar Michael Botticelli, "The language we use to describe this disease can either perpetuate or overcome the stereotypes, prejudice and lack of empathy that keep people from getting the treatment they need."

If you were not able to join us for this event, or if you'd like to view the talk again, the video footage can be found here.

Jeffrey Hom is a policy advisor in the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, where he provides guidance to the Health Commissioner on programs and policies related to the wellbeing of all Philadelphians. His present focus is on substance use, in particular issues around access to treatment and overdose prevention. He is also a board-certified internist and cares for patients at the Crescenz VA Medical Center in Philadelphia.

Jeff has contributed to health care and public health efforts in San Francisco, Boston, and Shiprock, New Mexico, as well as internationally in Lesotho and Cambodia, all of which have deepened his desire to improve community well-being, pursue health equity and advance social justice. For his efforts he was selected as a Zuckerman Fellow at Harvard's Center for Public Leadership and received a 2016 Presidential Scholarship for AcademyHealth's Institute on Advocacy and Public Policy.

A native San Franciscan, Jeff completed his undergraduate education with a degree in Art History at Bowdoin College. He received his MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health and his MD from Harvard Medical School prior to completing his residency in internal medicineprimary care at the University of California, San Francisco. Jeff was most recently a fellow in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he obtained his Masters of Science in Health Policy Research.

This event was co-sponsored by the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI) and the National Center for Integrated Behavioral Health (NCIBH).