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March 4, 2020

Reducing Opioid Addiction and Deaths

From 2017 to 2018, Wisconsin saw a 10 percent drop in opioid deaths, the first drop since 2015, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). The rate of opioid-related deaths in Wisconsin also decreased 1.4 percent from 2016 to 2018.

March 4, 2020

ThedaCare Opioid Campaign Producing Positive Results

APPLETON, Wis. – From 2017 to 2018, Wisconsin saw a 10 percent drop in opioid deaths, the first drop since 2015, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). The rate of opioid-related deaths in Wisconsin also decreased 1.4 percent from 2016 to 2018.

“That’s the good news,” said Paula Morgen, ThedaCare Director of Community Health Improvement. “We should note the numbers do not mean that opioid use has leveled off. There are several factors involved in the drop.”

Morgen noted that drug abuse was among the top three health problems identified in a ThedaCare Community Health Needs Assessment completed in 2016.

“At that time, the opioid crisis was in full force,” she said. “Opioids and suicides were largely responsible for a reduction in life expectancy across the country, and Northeast and Central Wisconsin were no exception.”

To combat that emerging crisis, in 2018 ThedaCare created a multi-disciplinary team to develop a system-wide strategy to reduce opioid use and increase awareness of the risks of using opioids. It combined its efforts with the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) national campaign entitled “It Only Takes a Little to Lose a Lot.” The campaign included billboards, social media, medication takeback boxes and public service announcements across the service area.

The CDC noted that almost 36 percent of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid.

“We know that 80 percent of those who have an addiction to opioids got started through an addiction to prescription drugs,” Morgen said. “When they can no longer get prescription opioids, they shift to heroin or other illegal drugs. ThedaCare is working to change that dynamic by reducing the rate of opioid prescription, educating consumers, offering medically assisted treatment, helping get unused opioid prescriptions off the streets and providing other resources to those impacted by opioids. ThedaCare takes this community problem seriously.”

Dr. Jennifer Frank, Chief Medical Officer of the ThedaCare Clinically Integrated Network, noted that ThedaCare physicians led one of the first efforts of the strategy.

“Our providers have adopted best practices as identified by the Centers for Disease Control and other organizations and guidelines around prescribing opioids.” she said. “Our doctors are using opioids less frequently for chronic pain and searching out alternative treatments.”

Another focus was educating consumers about the risks of using opioids.

“As part of the campaign, we encouraged patients to explore all options with their physicians if they were being prescribed an opioid,” Dr. Frank said. “We wanted to make sure patients felt empowered to have a conversation about what the risks could be and ask if there was an alternative treatment they could use.”

ThedaCare continues to work on its third component of the strategy – to increase its capacity to provide medically assisted treatment (MAT) for those addicted to opioids.

“Medically assisted treatment is effective for people who are currently addicted to opioids by treating them with medications that help them to stop using opioids,” Dr. Frank said. “Some forms of MAT requires additional certification for the doctor or advanced practice clinician and a specific level of support staff for a clinic to qualify to provide services. We are currently expanding our capacity to provide medically assisted treatment within the ThedaCare system.”

As part of its campaign, ThedaCare also promoted the Wisconsin Addiction Recovery Helpline (call 211 or 877-947-2211), which launched in November 2018. Since that time, more than 350 calls have been made to the Helpline from within the ThedaCare service area.

The opioid awareness campaign also included medication take-back boxes at seven locations within its service area, including ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Appleton, ThedaCare Medical Center-Berlin, ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah, ThedaCare Medical Center-New London, ThedaCare Medical Center-Shawano, ThedaCare Medical Center-Waupaca and ThedaCare Cancer Care-Oshkosh.

“Statistics show that 70 percent of people who abuse prescription drugs get them from family members or friends,” said Sarah Raether, medication diversion prevention specialist for ThedaCare. “Sometimes those people willingly give the drugs to friends or family members and sometimes the drugs are stolen from them. The bottom line is we need to get drugs off the streets and stop people before they move onto addiction.”

The convenient and secure disposal boxes are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Raether noted that opioids aren’t the only drugs that get used improperly.

“Any drug that’s not being used as originally prescribed is considered ‘diverted’,” she explained. “Having leftover drugs in the house opens up the possibility of it being used by mistake. There is also the risk of accidental poisoning of children, overdose or drug interaction. If you’re no longer actively taking a drug, dispose of it in one of the take back boxes.”

She noted that previously it was suggested that drugs be disposed of by flushing them down the toilet, but that’s no longer a safe option.

“We’re seeing those drugs show up in our lakes, streams and water supplies, causing problems for people, fish and animals,” she said. “Using the take back boxes is the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of drugs.”

To date, more than 500 pounds of drugs have been destroyed since the boxes were put in place last August at ThedaCare locations.

“I’ve heard that people are saying the boxes are a great option and very convenient,” Raether explained. “We appreciate the public’s use of the boxes.”

Accepted items for disposal:

  • Expired, unwanted prescription and over-the-counter medications
  • Medicated ointments
  • Non-aerosol sprays

NOT Accepted for disposal:

  • Needles/lancets/syringes
  • Thermometers
  • IV bags
  • Diabetes test kits
  • Personal care products (shampoo, lotion, etc.)
  • Inhalers
  • Liquids

The medication take-back boxes were made possible through the generosity of donors of the following ThedaCare Family of Foundations communities: Appleton, Berlin, New London, Shawano and Waupaca. To help support the health and care of our communities, you can make a gift online at or send contributions to ThedaCare Family of Foundations, 1818 N. Meade Street, Appleton, WI 54911.

As the area’s only local, not-for-profit health system, ThedaCare reinvests all revenue over expenses back into the community for healthcare programs and services. In 2018, the total dollar value of that donated community support, called Community Benefit, amounted to more than $60 million across the service area.

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