Pa. Secretary of Health Shines Spotlight on Opioid, Heroin Crisis During DeSales Lecture

by Janelle Hill | Dec 13, 2016

PA Health Secretary Dr Karen Murphy at DeSales

PA Health Secretary Dr Karen Murphy at DeSales

Dr. Karen Murphy (center) is with Dr. Thomas Craig, assistant professor of business (left) and Dr. Mary Elizabeth Doyle-Tadduni (right), chair of the department of nursing and health at DeSales.

Students at DeSales University are learning firsthand about Pennsylvania’s biggest healthcare priorities, including the growing opioid and heroin epidemic. Karen Murphy, state secretary of health, visited the University on December 8 for a Status Update of Healthcare in Pennsylvania.

The University’s Division of Business and Department of Nursing & Health presented the lecture, which was free and open to the public. Murphy began by telling students that the most important part of her background is the fact that she’s a registered nurse. “I’ve never lost the passion for patients and the passion for making a difference in patients’ lives,” she said. “There is really nothing more rewarding than everyday giving back as you do your work.”

Dr Karen Murphy at DeSalesShe then delved into the state’s biggest health priorities, everything from improving the quality and safety of nursing homes to combatting the Zika virus. Murphy zeroed in on the growing opioid and heroin crisis that Pennsylvania and many other states are facing; a crisis, she said, that is claiming 10 lives in the keystone state every single day. “I've been in health care for many decades,” she told students. “I have never ever ever seen a public health crisis like we're seeing today. It has no boundaries in terms of who it's impacted.”

Murphy detailed the nation’s big shift to narcotics. Prior to the ’90s, painkillers were handed out very cautiously. That all changed, she said, when the industry started saying that people would not get addicted. A liberal prescribing pattern soon followed. Today, many people are turning to heroin, which sells for as little as five dollars a bag on the street, when they can’t get a prescription for pills.

Addressing the crisis is a top priority of Governor Tom Wolf’s administration. And Murphy told students that they will be faced with it when they begin their careers. “Addiction has ravished Pennsylvania,” she said. “This is going to take us decades to get ahold of.”

She also spoke about the stigma attached to drug addiction, sharing a personal story about a family friend who’s relative has struggled to stay clean. He’s been to rehab several times but still relapsed and ended up overdosing. Fortunately, he survived. But he was released from the hospital without discharge instructions, and the family told friends they couldn't believe the way nurses looked at them and how doctors treated them. It’s a lesson Murphy hopes students take to heart. “There should never be a time when any individual is looked upon that their life is not valued,” she said. “We save every life. That is the oath we take.”

Over the summer, Pennsylvania launched a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program to help break the cycle of addiction. Before doctors prescribe a painkiller, they can look up whether another physician has filled a similar prescription. To date, more than 57,000 providers have registered for the program. Families can also go to the pharmacy and get a prescription for Naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose. The medication has saved thousands of lives and Murphy encouraged everyone who has a family member who’s addicted to have it in their home. She’s also hoping to one day have Naloxone included wherever there’s a defibrillator.

Murphy also told students about Public Health 3.0, a national initiative which examines the role social determinants play in a person’s health and seeks to incorporate health into all areas of governance. The state is now looking to partner with every county in Pennsylvania to make a difference in the health of the community. 

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Tom McNamara, Executive Director of Communications
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