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Penn Current: Penn takes on Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic

1,200. That’s how many lives are expected to be claimed from drug overdoses, mainly involving opioids, this year in Philadelphia. In 2016, there were 907. Far too high of a number for one city, and ever-increasing throughout each town in the country, “the opioid crisis is going to be a defining public health issue of my generation,” says Mara Gordon, a resident in family medicine at Penn, who graduated from the Perelman School of Medicine in 2015. An epidemic in every form of the word, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. A tough challenge with a lot of unanswered questions, addressing this crisis is something Penn is taking head-on, not just behind-the-scenes with research, but on the ground, too. “We’re on our way, and the potential exists, for Penn to be a big, national leader in fighting this,” says Brian Work, an assistant professor of clinical medicine. Zachary Meisel, an associate professor of emergency medicine, agrees. “Penn is leveraging what it does best, which is science, the delivery of unparalleled care, and through education,” he says. “Penn tends to lead the way during major health crises … so why shouldn’t we be the leader now?” Empathetic care in a safe space Work, also a clinical site director at Prevention Point for Penn’s Bridging the Gaps program, steps off the subway at SEPTA’s Somerset Station, clad in his khakis, white button-down, and a bowtie. He walks two blocks to Prevention Point, a multiservice public health organization, which first garnered attention in the 1990s for its syringe exchange program. Today, it’s widely known for its trainings that teach individuals how to use naloxone, a medication that reverses an opioid overdose. A volunteer at Prevention Point since 2002, Work has served as its board chair for the past two years. Every Wednesday afternoon at the Kensington clinic, which is in an old church refurbished with the help of the city, he sees patients from the community, often who are homeless, lacking insurance, and struggling with health issues, many times including addiction to opioids—specifically heroin. “These are not so-called ‘junkies,’” says Work, also a senior fellow at the Penn Center for Public Health Initiatives (CPHI). “These are people’s moms, dads, brothers, and sisters.” Work hugs a former client who’s in the busy “drop-in room,” where people can take shelter from the cold or heat, grab some coffee, eat lunch, and take a snooze or watch TV on a comfortable couch. Affectionately known simply as “Doc” at Prevention Point, Work says later that the patient was “recovering nicely” after treatment of some severe wounds on his arms that were infected from injecting heroin. There are eight exam rooms, where Work tends to patients privately, along with Penn, Drexel, Temple, and Jefferson medical residents and students. Nursing, social work, and undergraduate students from various schools at Penn are also often seen working at Prevention Point. Gordon, who volunteered at Prevention Point as a medical student, and is still involved as a medical resident, says the experience has been one she’ll never forget. “It’s really powerful for me to see how I can start to gain the skills to be the type of doctor to meet people where they are, and take care of them in a way that makes them feel safe,” she says. “It’s been great exposure to learning how to practice compassionate and non-judgmental medicine, and 100 percent influenced what I want to do in the future.” Another room at Prevention Point is bustling with social workers. Downstairs, there’s a homeless shelter. While peering into the basement, where cots are set up with blankets and pillows, Work says they’ll accept anyone who needs a place to stay, whether or not they have an addiction. The goal of Prevention Point, he says, is harm reduction and education. “We’re not going to stop everyone from using today,” Work says. “So let’s get them some clean needles, let’s give them Narcan, teach people to not use alone, so they don’t die before they get a chance to recover.” Read more at Penn Current.