ETSU OB/GYN dept. expands NAS prevention program, adds mental health counselor and physician

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An ETSU health program aimed at reducing the number of babies born addicted to drugs is expanding its services.

The university’s OB/GYN department began offering a pilot program in 2016 to help pregnant women lower their dosage of Subutex, and subsequently, buprenorphine, an ingredient found in Subutex.

Subutex is commonly used to treat opioid addiction. However, buprenorphine, which can help fight symptoms of drug withdrawal, is also the lead cause of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).

“The rate of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome is about six times the national average in our area,” estimated Dr. Marty Olsen, ETSU Health physician and professor at the Quillen College of Medicine. “If you look at Johnson City alone, it’s about one out of every 11 pregnant women have a positive drug screen for buprenorphine, the ingredient in Subutex and Suboxone.”

Olsen said his group hopes to get mothers’ doses down to two milligrams or less. Two milligrams is about one-eighth of the average dose most commonly prescribed to patients in the region.

Research is currently being conducted to compare the effects of the lower dose with standard higher doses.

“The goal is no drugs because we want the babies to be born without drug-related withdrawal,” said Dr. Olsen, “if we lower the drugs, we’re doing the research, and we hope to show that even a lower dose is going to have a significant benefit to the patients.”

The program has helped 150 women lower their dosage of buprenorphine and 25 women have stopped taking the drug during their pregnancy.

With these successes, the program has now added a new mental health counselor through a partnership with Frontier Health. It has also added a new physician.

“We bring the patient into our office and we say we’re going to take care of your opioid addiction needs, we’re going to take care of your obstetric needs, we’re going to work with you on your counseling needs,” said Dr. Olsen, “and that not only makes it more convenient for the patient, but it’s a stronger bond with the patient when you are taking care of the patient rather than one disease.”

The new physician, Dr. Jessica Murphy, comes from Culpepper County, Virginia, which has one of the highest rates of opioid-related deaths in the state.

“The women that come through our program week after week, you can see how proud they are about the progress they’ve made,” she said. “They can see the success they’ve had and they know they are doing the best thing for their baby.”

The program is also expanding to accept new patients.

To learn more about ETSU Health OB/GYN’s NAS prevention program, you can call (423) 439-7272.

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