On Monday, I had the honor to introduce the current surgeon general of the United States, Jerome M. Adams, MD, MPH, at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA) in San Diego. Adams headlined our plenary session on “The Emerging Federal Response to the Opioid Crisis: What Organizations and Communities Can Do to Make an Impact."
In September, the surgeon general released Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Spotlight on Opioids, which calls for a cultural shift in the way Americans talk about the opioid crisis and recommends actions that can prevent and treat opioid misuse and promote recovery. The same day, he also released a digital postcard, highlighting tangible actions that all Americans can take to raise awareness, prevent opioid misuse and reduce overdose deaths. Both the full document and the digital postcard can be viewed on the surgeon general's website.
In his comments to the APHA audience, Adams asserted that the opioid crisis is the worst public health problem that we ever have confronted in the US. This is reflected in the grim statistics: Today, we lose about 200 people a day to death from opioids, the equivalent of a large plane crash killing everyone. Today, our life expectancy is shorter than just a few years ago due to opioid deaths, a shocking reversal that has never occurred previously in the US. Today, the opioid crisis affects almost every family in the US.
Adams recounted the problems in his own family. His brother suffers from mental illness and substance addiction, and currently is in the Maryland state prison.
The surgeon general also pointed to the importance of building community partnerships and collaborations to address the opioid crisis. We need to address this problem by engaging private sector organizations, community organizations, our county and city governments, and our care programs in initiatives that mobilize all of our local communities.
At the present time, Adams is leading an important Call to Action on Improving Community Health and Prosperity that builds on the essential idea of private-public sector collaboration.
Following his comments, representatives of the APHA Mental Health Section (David Kan, MD), the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Section (Linda Frazier), the Public Health Nursing Section (Cynthia Stone, DrPH, RN), and the Integrative, Complementary, and Traditional Health Practices Section (Elizabeth Sommers, PhD, MPH, LAc) discussed the activities their sections are undertaking and how their sections are beginning to work together to address the opioid crisis.
This animated discussion was led by Karen Smith, MD, MPH, director and state public health officer, California Department of Public Health, and Tom Renfree, acting executive director of the California Behavioral Health Directors Association.
Always essential is the need to get appropriate specialty care to those who are addicted to opioids. SAMHSA has extensive resources available to facilitate such care, and Assistant Secretary of Mental Health and Substance Use, Elinore McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, has demonstrated personal alarm about the growing linkage between serious mental illness and opioid addiction.
Further, a clear priority is the role public health professionals across all sectors can play in addressing the current crisis. Strategies to increase public health professionals’ capacity within communities and across population groups will be essential.
The annual APHA meeting in San Diego brought together more than 13,000 public health professionals under the theme “Creating the Healthiest Nation: Health Equity Now”. The 2019 meeting will be held in Philadelphia.