Rural nurses given tools to combat overdoses in isolated communities

Working in small northern and interior First Nations communities scattered across hills and winding valleys, registered nurse  Kate Hodgson says finding treatment options for people who use  substances can be just as difficult as navigating the landscape itself.

Many communities are  visited by a family doctor only one or two days a week. Travel to larger  centres with more resources can be expensive, dangerous or even  impossible with bad weather. 

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Family physicians can also be hesitant to  adopt safer supply approaches like prescribing pharmaceutical  alternatives to illicit drugs, even to people at extremely high risk of  overdosing.

“We have mountains and forests and rivers,  and we have so much to work through to get people the care that they  need,” said Hodgson, the practice consultant for substance use with the  First Nations Health Authority.

But soon she will have one more option for patients who use substances.

Hodgson is among 30  registered and psychiatric nurses in British Columbia who will be able  to prescribe Suboxone, a prescription opioid substitute, by the end of  the month, the province announced.

The approach is part of a new effort to  prevent overdoses and deaths made possible by a September order from  provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry granting nurses prescribing  powers to treat substance use.

“This can really save someone’s life,” said  Hodgson. “Because in that moment, when we are having those pressing  conversations with people, to be able to just offer it without having to  get in the boat and row across the river and hike up the mountain, it’s  life-changing.”

Registered nurses and registered  psychiatric nurses are joining physicians, pharmacists and nurse  practitioners as points of access for pharmaceutical alternatives to  street drugs, a move experts say will benefit rural and remote  communities in particular.

Amanda Lavigne, a registered psychiatric  nurse in Kamloops who supports nurses throughout Interior Health in  treating substance use, said it’s an important change.

“This is just new ways of practising. Our  scope has been broadened quite drastically, compared to what I think  nursing has really ever been used to seeing,” she said.

A range of approaches are included in  discussions around safer supply programs. The nurses will be able to  prescribe substances like Suboxone with the aim of reducing people’s use  of illicit street drugs.

Critics say that falls short of true safer  supply, which would provide pharmaceutical-grade versions of illicit  substances instead of alternatives.

The first cohort is only trained to  prescribe buprenorphine/naloxone, known as Suboxone, but training for  other alternatives like slow-release oral morphine and methadone will  come in later phases.

Research from the BC Centre on Substance  Use suggests around 83,000 people have opioid dependence in B.C., while  only about 23,000 people in B.C. have access to any form of opioid  substitute treatment.

Just under 4,000 of those have access to  pharmaceutical-grade versions of street drugs through safer supply  programs, the vast majority of which are prescribed the oral tablet  hydromorphone.

Last year, 1,548 people died of overdoses  between January and November, placing 2020 on track to be the deadliest  year for overdoses in B.C.

Lavigne said seeing the  crisis worsen during her more than decade-long career has made her and  her colleagues keen to do more, even before the pandemic undid much  recent progress to curb deaths. 

“Seeing the numbers and the bigger picture, that really anchored me as a clinician.”

Emma Garrod, a registered nurse and  clinical project manager with the BC Centre on Substance Use, says the  decision to start with Suboxone was made because it is usually the first  opioid replacement treatment tried with a new patient.

“It’s a pretty big leap to prescribe a  controlled substance as opposed to starting someone with Tylenol,” said  Garrod. “It’s a large leap for the college and it’s precedent-setting in  North America.”

Garrod led the development of the training  in concert with the BC College of Nurses and Midwives and said it was a  challenge because prescribing isn’t really part of a nursing education.

But the training is “really building on a very strong foundation that nurses already have,” said Garrod.

This first cohort of nurses did  pre-existing online opioid prescribing training for physicians and  pharmacists and then completed a specially designed workbook on the  prescribing process during distanced, in-person training in smaller  groups last month.

In the next few weeks they are finishing  their in-person training with current prescribers and substance use  experts throughout the province.

The training will continue to quickly scale up the number of nurse prescribers available.

All three said nurses have a unique role  that puts them in a strong position to help people who use substances  access alternatives, particularly in smaller communities where they may  be the only full-time health-care professionals.

“Nurses have a differently facing role with  clients than physicians do,” Lavinge said. “They’re in a position to  reach out to clients, for creating those relationships in the  community.” 

“Many nurses here… they just wish they could do more.”

Providing expanded substance use care is  particularly important in First Nations communities and for Indigenous  people in urban centres who experience frequent and systemic racism in  health care.

Indigenous people in B.C. are much less likely to have access to primary care, which a recent report found results in poorer health outcomes across the board, especially for women.

First Nations people account for 16 per  cent of overdose fatalities despite making up only 3.3 per cent of the  B.C. population. First Nations women are nearly twice as likely to die  of an overdose as non-First Nations women, according to the report.

“For us, having nurses prescribing safer supply, we’re really helping address those gaps,” said Hodgson.

Garrod said the training will evolve based  on feedback and questions from nurses as they begin to prescribe and  that will shape training for expanded prescription abilities to provide  safer alternatives to other substances.

Garrod said the work also begins to break  down stigma around substance use and remove barriers to care for the  people who need it most.

“There are many other elements of care and  changes needed, and this is one part of it,” said Garrod. “It’s a really  big step for a lot of more rural and remote places that need access to  prescribers.”

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