Opioid misuse and overdose remain a significant public health emergency facing Georgia. The Georgia Department of Public Health says there were 1,300 opioid overdose deaths in 2020, up 52% over the 2019 number of 853. This sharp increase punctuates an alarming upward trend in deaths and overdoses. Rates of overdose and death are significantly higher in rural parts of Georgia and follow a well-known trend of lower access to care and poorer health outcomes among rural residents. Now, more than ever, strategies to reduce opioid misuse are needed to stop these needless tragedies and create health equity for rural Georgians.
In order to address this pressing concern, the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center (GRHIC) is partnering with the Christopher Wolf Foundation (CWC) to implement the proven Life Care Specialist (LCS) pilot program into three to five rural communities in Georgia.
Previously, a randomized control trial of the LCS model was piloted at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. The LCS model demonstrated a 25% reduction in prescription opioid use, with no adverse effect on pain control. Additionally, the study demonstrated the LCS model’s ability to increase knowledge about opioid risks and alternatives. Ancillary benefits included increased patient satisfaction scores, increased support for the hospital’s patient care team, a reduction in pain-related ER visits and readmissions post-discharge from the hospital.
Each of the Life Care Specialist trainees will be selected through a thorough application and interview process. Being from the rural community to be served or having a connection and interest in the rural community to be served is required. Upon selection, LCS training will be provided at no charge to the trainee.
Each LCS trainee will be enrolled in a rigorous online academic training curriculum, which will be provided by CWC and Mercer University. The learning modules will include the history of CWC and Christopher Wolf’s tragic story of opioid addiction, the social determinants of health and implicit bias, opioid education, pain management, addiction and treatment, mental health, trauma, and grief and mourning. In addition to the academic training, LCS trainees will be enrolled in a skills training curriculum to include the specific required technical skills of a Life Coach Specialist. Other LCS technical skills include the Community Resiliency Model (CRM) training, motivational interviewing, Narcan administration, and the health care privacy and medical records requirements and regulations. After the academic requirements are completed, each LCS trainee will be paired with a LCS trainer and participate in a full-time practicum. Upon completion of the practicum experience, the LCS trainee will become a certified LCS.
The Life Care Specialist model in rural hospitals provides rural Georgians direct intervention to reduce the risk of opioid dependence while improving pain management and quality of care. At each rural hospital, the Life Care Specialists will work alongside hospital staff to help meet the needs of the patient and support treatment goals. Each LCS will also support community awareness and education efforts to broaden the impact of opioid misuse beyond the hospital.
The LCS model is ideal for meeting the challenge of opioid misuse in rural Georgia. It is relational, efficient, and goes directly to the source of many addictions, which may occur when legitimate pain management needs become overwhelming. In collaboration with local communities, this model will unite the needed partners to bring this much-needed program to fruition.