Ottawa drug treatment program showing promising results

·3 min read
Dr. Jeff Turnbull, medical director of Ottawa Inner City Health, said the managed opioid program helps participants overcome
Dr. Jeff Turnbull, medical director of Ottawa Inner City Health, said the managed opioid program helps participants overcome

A unique program that supplies opioid users with a safe supply of pharmaceutical-grade narcotics and a place to live is showing promising results, along with some additional benefits.

A study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in August outlines several positive outcomes among the first group of participants enrolled in the Managed Opioid Program (MOP), run by Ottawa Inner City Health, over the first year after its Aug. 2017 launch.

After one year, more than three-quarters of the program's 26 participants remained in treatment, while nearly half had stopped using non-prescription opioids altogether and almost 60 per cent never had an overdose.

Researchers also measured other "wellness outcomes" stemming from the program. What they found was also encouraging. Approximately three-quarters of the people going through MOP reconnected with estranged family members and about a third started working or were enrolled in a vocational program.

"When we first bring them into the program, we'll ask 'What do you hope to achieve?'" said Amanda LaBelle, a nurse co-ordinator with Ottawa Inner City Health who works directly with people enrolled in the MOP.

"Success in the program is kind of fluid. It's not always up. It's not always down, but … it's really rewarding when you see people doing well."

Program pairs housing, safe drug supply

The Ottawa drug treatment program sets itself apart from most others across Canada because it pairs a safe supply of drugs with a private room in a communal housing environment.

Participants must be experiencing homelessness and still using non-prescription opioids, such as heroin or fentanyl. The program is specifically tailored to people who have failed other types of drug treatment programs, some that use methadone or suboxone.

"This group of people, there's nothing that can bring them from that instability and chaos other than a program like this," said Dr. Jeff Turnbull, medical director of Ottawa Inner City Health.

When they enter the program, they're given a controlled supply of pharmaceutical-grade injectable opioid, known as hydromorphone or Dilaudid.

Ashley Burke/CBC
Ashley Burke/CBC

Turnbull said the program's ultimate priority is safety because it takes in some of the city's most vulnerable people. Part of that safety includes providing a non-toxic drug supply, unlike what they might otherwise buy on the streets which could be laced with deadly substances such as fentanyl.

Results met expectations

The program's results are in line with similar studies done in British Columbia and "decades of research" done in Europe, said Miriam Harris, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Boston University, who is the study's lead author.

"Overall, it's very promising, and I really wish … I had this tool for many of my patients who are on methadone and suboxone," she said.

Harris cautioned against over-stating the findings, however, since the study relied on a small sample size and the participants were all hand-selected by Ottawa Inner City Health staff.

But LaBelle said positive outcomes like those seen in the program's first cohort are what make her job worthwhile.

"As much as this job can be very stressful and anxiety-provoking at times, when you have these little wins, I try and keep them in the forefront of my mind," she said. "I know this is helping people tremendously."

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