Physicians Giving Heroin Interventions To Pregnant Women Who Don't Use Heroin

By McCarton Ackerman 02/27/14

A new and unusual program seeks to stop potential pregnant heroin users from picking up the habit in the first place.

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Physicians in the Syracuse, N.Y. area are planning to take the unusual approach of staging heroin interventions for pregnant women who have never used heroin. Approximately 2.6 percent of all newborns in Onondanga County have some form of drug dependency and half of them are addicted to opiates like heroin, giving the county the highest percentage of babies born addicted to heroin in New York State. The interventions are part of a new program called Screen, Briefing and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT), which hopes to prevent women from using heroin rather than treating them once it’s too late.

The program is encouraging every doctor in the county to screen every pregnant woman for drug use. If it appears they are likely to use heroin in the future, the intervention will warn the mothers about what living with a heroin-dependent baby is like, as well as the likely defects such as deformed growth and abnormal brain development. "Putting all of our energy into treating people once they become addicted is an old model," said Brad Finn, executive director of the Prevention Network. "Instead, how do we move back upstream and catch people before they jump in the river of addictions?"

The pregnant women will answer a series of questions from their doctor or nurse about their drinking and drug use, ultimately receiving a grade based on their responses. If it’s determined that an intervention is necessary, the medical staff will work directly with the patients on reducing their drug use. While a few local doctors and OB-GYNs already use this screening process, the new program is simply hoping to expand that same procedure throughout the county.

“When you talk to the women about the impact on their baby they're more likely to respond than if you talk about them. It's not about scaring them; it's about being realistic. Watching a baby go through withdrawal is just horrible,” said Beth Hurny, director of services for the Prevention Network. "The goal is to reduce the outrageous percentage of babies born with neonatal absence syndrome," or withdrawal from addictive drugs. "Any outcome is positive. But we hope to reduce it significantly."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.