Turning Passion Into Action

Pharmacy and physician assistant students learn to advocate for those impacted by opioid use.

Philadelphia is in the midst of a public health crisis related to opioid use. In the first quarter of 2019, the city saw 230 reported deaths from opioid overdose. That’s two to three deaths per day.

These statistics don’t account for the many other impacts of opioid use, from the emotional toll on families to the increased risk of contracting hepatitis C and HIV among people who use syringes, and the public who may come into contact with these syringes. The city supports harm-reduction policies aimed at minimizing the damaging effects of drug use and providing judgment-free care. Strategies include syringe exchange programs, overdose prevention sites, naloxone provision and sharps disposal kiosks.

Headshot of Roshni Patel

Dr. Roshni Patel

Speakers from the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition recently conducted an Opioid Response Advocacy Forum for third-year pharmacy and second-year physician assistant students at Jefferson. Devin Reaves and Dr. Sean Fogler are in long-term recovery and use their voices to advocate for harm-reduction practices and policies in Pennsylvania.

“Harm reduction gives people a second chance,” says Dr. Fogler. “This is what I’m doing with my second chance, [but] we can’t change the narrative alone. We have to do it together.”

By using their knowledge and skills to advocate for others, Jefferson students can make an impact on many lives.

We can’t change the narrative alone. We have to do it together.
—Dr. Sean Fogler

Health professions students at Jefferson are familiar with substance use disorders and their management, but some have less experience with harm reduction, the legislative process and how to advocate for legislative change. This symposium helped give students the tools to translate their passion into action.

After defining harm reduction and sharing some shocking statistics with students, Reaves and Dr. Fogler explained how to find and contact their legislators and advocate for harm-reduction policies. The first step in advocating to a legislator is to identify why an issue matters. In small interprofessional groups, students began to craft their “why?” Many shared stories of loved ones impacted by addiction.

Headshot of Dr. Amber King

Dr. Amber King

Next, those advocating must describe to the legislator what can be done to help. Students again worked together to craft impactful descriptions of the benefits of harm-reduction policies to the legislator’s constituents. For example, syringe exchange programs reduce the incidence of needlesticks among law enforcement officials and decrease the risk of community members being stuck by discarded needles.

Finally, students learned how to make an “ask” to legislators by becoming educated on the issues they support and explaining how harm reduction lines up with their areas of interest.

As a result of this symposium, multiple students and faculty members have written letters to their legislators in support of harm-reduction principles. Efforts like this show how members of the Jefferson community can use their voices to address the opioid epidemic by recognizing that addiction is a disease and all people deserve a second chance.

Dr. Roshni Patel and Dr. Amber King are associate professors at the Jefferson College of Pharmacy. They organized this symposium, which was supported by a grant from AmerisourceBergen and done in partnership with the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition.

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