Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
From September 2019 to September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 90,000 overdose deaths in the United States. These latest data on the nation’s opioid crisis offer another stark reminder that help is desperately needed in communities across the land. NIH’s research efforts to address the opioid crisis have been stressed during the pandemic, but creative investigators have come up with workarounds like wider use of telemedicine to fill the gap.
Much of NIH’s work on the opioid crisis is supported by the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative. Recently, the more-than 500 investigators supported by HEAL came together virtually for their second annual meeting to discuss the initiative’s latest research progress and challenges.
As part of the meeting, I had a conversation with Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General. Dr. Murthy served as the 19th U.S. Surgeon General under the Obama Administration and was recently confirmed as the 21st Surgeon General under the Biden Administration. In his first term as America’s Doctor, in which I had the privilege of working with him, Dr. Murthy created initiatives to tackle our country’s most urgent public health issues, including addiction and the opioid crisis. He also issued the nation’s first Surgeon General’s Report on addiction, presenting the latest scientific data and issuing a call to action to recognize addiction as a chronic illness—and not a moral failing.
In 2016, Dr. Murthy sent a letter to 2.3 million healthcare professionals urging them to join a movement to tackle the opioid epidemic. This was the first time in the history of the office that a Surgeon General had issued a letter calling the medical profession to action on this issue. In 2017, Dr. Murthy focused his attention on chronic stress and isolation as prevalent problems with profound implications for health, productivity, and happiness.
Our conversation during the HEAL meeting took place via videoconference, with the Surgeon General connecting from Washington, D.C., and me linking in from my home in Maryland. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:
Collins: Welcome, Dr. Murthy. We’ve known each other for a few years, and I know that you’ve talked extensively about the national epidemic of loneliness. What have you learned about loneliness and how it affects our emotional wellbeing?
Murthy: Thanks, Francis. Loneliness and perceived social isolation are profound challenges for communities struggling with addiction, including opioid use disorders. I had no real background in these issues when I started as Surgeon General in 2014. I was educated by people I met all across the country, who in their own way would tell me their stories of isolation and loneliness. It’s a common stressor, especially for those who struggle with opioid use disorders. Stress can be a trigger for relapse. It’s also connected with overdose attempts and overdose deaths.
But loneliness is bigger than addiction. It is not just a bad feeling. Loneliness increases our risk of anxiety and depression, dementia, cardiac disease, and a host of other conditions. However you cut it, addressing social isolation and loneliness is an important public-health issue if we care about addiction, if we care about mental health—if we care about the physical wellbeing of people in our country.
Collins: Vivek, you made the diagnosis of an epidemic of American loneliness back before COVID-19 came along. With the emergence of COVID-19 a little more than a year ago, it caused us to isolate ourselves even more. Now that you’re back as Surgeon General and seeing the consequences of the worst pandemic in 103 years, is loneliness even worse now than before the pandemic?
Murthy: I think there are many people for whom that sense of isolation and loneliness has increased during the pandemic. But the pandemic has been a very heterogenous experience. There are some people who have found themselves more surrounded by their extended family or a close set of friends. That has been, in many ways, a luxury. For many people who are on the frontlines as essential workers, whose jobs don’t permit them to just pick up and leave and visit extended family, these have been very stressful and isolating times.
So, I am worried. And I’m particularly worried about young people—adolescents and young adults. They already had high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide before the pandemic, and they’re now struggling with loneliness. I mention this because young people are so hyperconnected by technology, they seem to be on TikTok and Instagram all the time. They seem to be chatting with their friends constantly, texting all the time. How could they feel isolated or lonely?
But one of the things that has become increasingly clear is what matters when it comes to loneliness is the quality of your human connections, not the quantity. For many young people that I spoke to while traveling across the country, they would say that, yes, we’re connected to people all the time. But we don’t necessarily feel like we can always be ourselves in our social media environment. That’s where comparison culture is at its height. That’s where we feel like our lives are always falling short, whether it’s not having a fancy enough job, not having as many friends, or not having the right clothing or other accessories.
We talk a lot about resilience in our country. But how do we develop more resilient people? One of the keys is to recognize that social connections are an important source of resilience. They are our natural buffers for stress. When hard things happen in our lives, so many of us just instinctively will pick up the phone to call a friend. Or we’ll get into the car and go visit a member of our family or church. The truth is, if we want to build a society that’s healthier mentally and physically, that is more resilient, and that is also more happy and fulfilled, we have to think about how we build a society that is more centered around human connection and around relationships.
My hope is that one of the things we will reevaluate is building a people-centered society. That means designing workplaces that allow people to prioritize relationships. It means designing schools that equip our children with social and emotional learning tools to build healthy relationships from the earliest ages. It means thinking about public policy, not from just the standpoint of financial impact but in terms of how it impacts communities and how it can fracture communities.
We have an opportunity to do that now, but it won’t happen by default. We have to think through this very proactively, and it starts with our own lives. What does it mean for each of us to live a truly people-centered life? What decisions would we make differently about work, about how we spend time, about where we put our attention and energy?
Collins: Those are profound and very personal words that I think we can all relate to. Let me ask you about another vulnerable population that we care deeply about. There are 50 million Americans who are living with chronic pain, invisible to many, especially during the pandemic, for whom being even more isolated has been particularly rough—and who are perhaps in a circumstance where getting access to medical care has been challenging. As Surgeon General, are you also looking closely at the folks with chronic pain?
Murthy: You’re right, the populations that were more vulnerable pre-pandemic have really struggled during this pandemic—whether that’s getting medications for treatment, needed counseling services, or taking part in social support groups, which are an essential part of the overall treatment approach and staying in recovery. It’s a reminder of how urgent it is for us, number one, to improve access to healthcare in our country. We’ve made huge strides in this area, but millions are still out of reach of the healthcare system.
A potential silver lining of this pandemic is telemedicine, which has extraordinary potential to improve and extend access to services for people living with substance use disorders. In 2016, I remember visiting a small Alaskan fishing village that you can only get to by boat or plane. In that tiny village of 150 people, I walked into the small cabin where they had first-aid supplies and provided some basic medical care. There I saw a small monitor mounted on the wall and a chair. They told me that the monitor is where people, if they’re dealing with a substance use disorder, come and sit to get counseling services from people in the lower 48 states. I was so struck by that. To know that telemedicine could reach this remote Alaskan village was really extraordinary.
I think the pandemic has accelerated our adoption of telemedicine by perhaps five years or more. But we must sustain this momentum not only with investment in broadband infrastructure, but with other things that seem mundane, like the reimbursement structure around telemedicine. I talk to clinicians now who say they are seeing some private insurers go back on reimbursement for telemedicine because the pandemic is starting to get better. But the lesson learned is not that telemedicine should go away; it’s that we should be integrating it even more deeply into the practice of medicine.
The future of care, I believe, is bringing care closer to where people are, integrating it into their workflow, bringing it to their homes and their neighborhoods. I saw this so clearly for many of the patients I cared for who fell into that category of being in vulnerable populations. They were working two, three jobs, trying to take care of their children at the same time. Having a conversation with them about how they could find time to go to the gym was almost a laughable matter because they were literally dealing with issues of survival and putting food on the table for their kids. As a society we have to do more to understand the lives of people who fall into those categories and provide services that bring what they need to them, as opposed to expecting them to come to us.
If we continue in a purely fee-for-service-based environment where people must go multiple places to get their care, we will not ultimately get care to the vulnerable populations that have struggled the most and that are hoping that we will do better this time around. I think we can. I think we must. And I think COVID may just be, in part, the impetus to move forward in a different way that we need.
Collins: Let’s talk a minute about the specifics of the opioid crisis. If we’re going to move this crisis in the right direction, are there particular areas that you would say we really need more rigorous data in order to convince the medical care system—both the practitioners and the people deciding about reimbursement—that these are things we must do?
Murthy: There are a few areas that come to mind, and I’ve jotted them down. It is so important for us to do research with vulnerable populations, recognizing they often get left out. It’s essential that we conduct studies specifically for these populations so that we can better target interventions to them.
The second area is prevention programs. People want to prevent illnesses. I have not met anybody anywhere in the United States who has said, “I’d rather get diabetes first and treat it versus prevent it in the first place.” As silly as that might sound, it is the exact opposite of how we finance health interventions in our country. We put the lion’s share of our dollars in treatment. We do very little in prevention.
The third piece is the barriers faced by primary-care clinicians, who we want to be at the heart of providing a lot of these treatment services. I’ll tell you, just from my conversations with primary-care docs around the country, they worry about not having enough for their patients in the way of social work and social support services in their offices.
Finally, it has become extraordinarily clear to me that social support is one of the critical elements of treatment for substance use disorders. That it is what helps keep people in recovery. I think about the fact that many people I met who struggle with opioid use disorders had family members who were wondering how they could be helpful. They weren’t sure. They said, “Should I just keep badgering my relative to go to treatment? Should I take a tough love approach? What should I do to be helpful?”
This actually is one of the most pressing issues: social support is most often going to come from family, from friends, and from other community members. So, being able to guide them in an evidence-based way about what measures, what forms actually can be helpful to people struggling with opioid use disorders could also be immensely helpful to a group that is looking to provide assistance and support, but often is struggling to figure out how best to do that.
Collins: Vivek, you were focused as Surgeon General in the Obama Administration on the importance of changing how America thinks about addiction—that it is not a moral failing but a chronic illness that has to be treated with compassion, urgency, skill, and medical intervention. Are we getting anywhere with making that case?
Murthy: Sometimes people shy away from addressing the stigma around addiction because it feels too hard to address. But it is one of the most important issues to address. If people are still feeling judged for their disorders, they are not going to feel comfortable coming forward and getting treatment. And others will hesitate to step up and provide support.
I will always remember the young couple I met in Oklahoma who had lost their son to an opioid overdose. They told me that previously in their life whenever they had a struggle—a job loss or other health issue in the family—neighbors would come over, they would drop off food, they would visit and sit with them in their living room and hold their hands to see if they were okay. When their son died after opioid use disorder, it was silent. Nobody came over. It’s a very common story of how people feel ashamed, they feel uncomfortable, they don’t know quite what to say. So they stay away, which is the worst thing possible during these times of great pain and distress.
I do think we have made progress in the last few years. There are more people stepping forward to tell their stories. There are more people and practitioners who are embracing the importance of talking to their patients about substance use disorders and getting involved in treating them. But the truth is, we still have many people in the country who feel ashamed of what they’re dealing with. We still have many family members who feel that this is a source of shame to have a loved one struggling with a substance use disorder.
To me, this is much bigger than substance use disorders. This is a broader cultural issue of how we think about strength and vulnerability. We have defined strength in modern society as the loudest voice in the room or the person with the most physical prowess, the person who’s aggressive in negotiations, and the person who’s famous.
But I don’t think that’s what strength really is. Strength is so often displayed in moments of vulnerability when people have the courage to open up and be themselves. Strength is defined by the people who have the courage to display love, patience, and compassion, especially when it’s difficult. That’s what real strength is.
One of my hopes is that, as a society, we can ultimately redefine strength. As we think about our children and what we want them to be, we cannot aspire for them to be the loudest voice in the room. We can aspire for them to be the most-thoughtful, the most-welcoming, the most-inviting, the most-compassionate voice in the room.
If we truly want to be a society that’s grounded in love, compassion, and kindness, if we truly recognize those as the sources of strength and healing, we have to value those in our workplaces. They have to be reflected in our promotion systems. We have to value them in the classroom. Ultimately, we’ve got to build our lives around them.
That is a broader lesson that I took from all of the conversations I’ve had with people who struggle with opioid use disorders. What I took was, yes, we need medication and assisted treatment; yes, we need counseling services; yes, we need social services and wraparound services and recovery services. But the engine that will drive our healing is fundamentally the love and compassion that come from human relationships.
We all have the ability to heal because we all have the ability to be kind and to love one another. That’s the lesson that it took me more than two decades to learn in medicine. More important than any prescription that I could write is the compassion that I could extend to patients simply by listening, by showing up, by being present in their lives. We all have that ability, regardless of what degrees follow our name.
Collins: Vivek, this has been a wonderful conversation. We are fortunate to have you as our Surgeon General at this time, when we need lots of love and compassion.
Murthy: Thank you so much, Francis.
Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)
Opioid Overdose Crisis (NIDA)
Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)
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