Expanded Peer Support Program at Union Hospital Increases Access to Care for Substance Use Disorders

Cecil County Peer SupportSubmitted Image

ELKTON, MD — Recognizing that stigma may keep people from accessing treatment and recovery resources, ChristianaCare Union Hospital is partnering with the Cecil County Health Department and Voices of Hope to make peer recovery specialists available at the bedside for patients who have experienced a drug overdose or live with substance use disorder.

Ten peer recovery specialists are available at Union Hospital seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. to talk with patients about behavioral health care navigation, access to treatment and referrals to harm-reduction and recovery-support resources. Patients can be connected with a certified peer recovery specialist if they are brought to the Emergency Department because of a drug overdose, or if they screen positive for substance use while they are a patient in the hospital.

Patients are not required to speak with a peer recovery specialist, but the specialists’ unique combination of lived experience and training to help people experiencing behavioral health issues offers an opportunity for people with substance use disorder to get help without fear of judgment or stigma.

“Substance use disorder continues to be a serious health problem that affects people of all ages and walks of life,” said Lanre Akinkunmi, M.D., interim chief medical officer and medical director for population health at ChristianaCare Cecil County Campus. “The good news is that it is treatable, and when people are in the hospital or the emergency department, they are often most receptive to discussions about treatment. Through this expanded use of peer recovery specialists at Union Hospital, we are making a positive impact on the health of our patients and our community.”

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A voice of experience

Peer recovery specialists who work on the weekdays are employed by the Cecil County Health Department, supported by a grant from the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Voices of Hope, a nonprofit focused on recovery support for people in Harford and Cecil counties in Maryland, employs the peer specialists working evenings and weekends.

“This program is a great example of using resources wisely and effectively. We already know the tremendous work being done by Voices of Hope and Cecil County Health Department to help our neighbors who have been impacted by substance use disorder,” said Lisa Fields, manager of Community Engagement at the Cecil County Campus. “By partnering on this important program, we are building trust with our patients and helping them to get on the road to recovery.”

Since the expanded program launched in September, there have been about 40 referrals for patients to speak with peer support specialists, and more than half of them have agreed to some kind of treatment, Fields said.

Unique connection

“Helping people get through what I went through really warms my heart,” said Hannah Dean, a peer recovery specialist with the Cecil County Health Department who works at Union Hospital. “I love what I do.”

Cecil County’s death rate from drug overdoses is nearly twice as high as the rest of Maryland and more than three times the U.S. rate. The drug overdose death rate in Cecil County more than doubled between 2016 and 2020, according to the 2022 Cecil County Community Health Needs Assessment.

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Because peer support specialists have lived experience with substance use disorder and recovery, along with specialized training to support people struggling with mental health or substance use issues, they can connect with patients on a personal level and offer empathetic guidance, said Lauren Levy, health officer for the Cecil County Health Department.

“Allowing peer recovery specialists to engage bedside with patients who may be struggling with substance use disorders will not only enhance access to behavioral health treatment but will also help reduce stigma surrounding substance use disorders and foster a more compassionate and supportive community,” Levy said.

“We are honored to be a part of this innovative private-public collaboration and to work alongside ChristianaCare Union Hospital and Voices of Hope, Inc. This project helps to break down barriers to treatment and provide immediate support to those in need.”

A history of support

ChristianaCare has long been a pioneer in the use of peer recovery specialists, going back to the launch of Project Engage at ChristianaCare’s Wilmington Hospital in 2008.

Union Hospital first partnered with the Cecil County Health Department 10 years ago to provide a peer recovery specialist in the Emergency Department. That program, the first of its kind in Maryland, was recognized with a best practice award from the Maryland Association of Counties in 2014. However, it operated only on weekdays during daytime business hours, and its ability to connect with hospital patients slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This reinvigorated peer recovery program is strengthened by the high level of collaboration among these Cecil County organizations, said Erin Wright, chief operations officer for Voices of Hope.

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“As community-based organizations, we are in a position to make a difference, and our perspective in the care for people with substance use disorder is really valuable,” said Wright, who has been in recovery for eight years.

“As someone who has been through it, we are able to have that empathy. Even if the person does not want to go to treatment, you sit with them and maybe plant a seed.”

Catharine Murray hopes her role as a certified peer recovery specialist can help someone struggling with addiction see recovery as a viable option for themselves.

“This wasn’t available to me when I was trying to get better. I want to make it more accessible to others,” she said.

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