Since fracturing his back during a sledding accident, Christian* has experienced pain for more than two decades. That incident set him on a slippery slope toward addiction as he relied on opioid medication to relieve his chronic pain. “I was addicted to something and didn’t even really know what addiction was,” he says. “I didn’t just decide to pick up heroin one day; I worked up to it.”

He struggled through cycles of sobriety, relapse, and progression to stronger substances until walking into his North Shore Physicians Group (NSPG) primary care office, a group practice affiliated with North Shore Medical Center, last year with a commitment to stop using for good. His reason for resolve? “I didn’t want to lose my wife.”

Christian was fortunate to be seen at a practice committed to supporting patients with substance use disorders (SUDs) holistically. At the center of the care model is Norma Lopez, DO, Medical Director for the NSPG Recovery Support Program and a family practice physician, who has specialized in SUD treatment since 2006. Typically, patients are referred to Dr. Lopez through their primary care office; every office in the NSPG has an embedded social worker who assists with referrals.

Dr. Lopez connects patients with a spectrum of resources, including Recovery Coaches, individuals who themselves have recovered from SUDs and provide invaluable peer support and care coordination. When NSPG’s first Recovery Coach, Richard Zombeck, started in 2017 he received 95 referrals in the first two months. It had ballooned to about 240 referrals within the first six months.

NSPG Program Manager Deidra Smith-Horton, Recovery Coach Richard Zombeck, and Medical Director Dr. Norma Lopez

Additional resources include medications such as Suboxone® (buprenorphine/naloxone)—which has helped curb Christian’s cravings for opioids on his road to recovery—as well as detox programs, sober homes, outpatient therapy, peer support groups, and more. The next step, says Dr. Lopez, in order to help more patients, is to help primary care providers feel comfortable caring for their patients themselves.

The key, she explains, is helping providers feel capable of treating this population, showing them the supports available to them, and reminding them that they are not alone. To propel the shift, Dr. Lopez has been working to train clinicians like nurses, physicians, and physicians’ assistants on best practices for treating patients with substance use disorders. This includes helping clinicians meet the training hours required to obtain a specialized license from the DEA to administer buprenorphine medications like Suboxone® that help support patient recovery.

“Patients feel more comfortable getting treated where they get their primary care,” she says. “We’re trying to encourage primary care providers to realize that this can be done at an office visit.”

Find more insight into NSPG’s recovery initiatives and Christian’s story here.

*Only first names are used to protect patient privacy.

Banner image: NSMC Union Hospital