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The opioid crisis afflicts some states more than others; New Jersey suffered 16 opioid-related overdose deaths per 100,000 persons, more than the national rate of 13.3 deaths per 100,000. Those kinds of grim statistics call for a fresh approach to treating substance abuse, and that’s why the two organizations have come together to open new addiction treatment centers and New Jersey’s first behavioral health urgent care center.

“One focus in this merger is our ability to have scale,” says Donald Parker, president of Carrier Clinic. “When you’re in a drug and alcohol program, most of the time you’re a single player. Here we’ve got 17 hospitals, we have 500 outpatient locations in the system. I expect that the relationship with Hackensack Meridian will allow us to lead the field.”

Options for New Jersey

“All too often, New Jersey citizens have to go out of state to obtain inpatient or residential substance treatment,” notes Ramon Solhkhah, M.D., founding chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. “We want to ensure that our patients can stay in-state. With the merger, we are looking to open a new addiction treatment center in Mahwah, NJ.”

“We’ve purchased, in partnership with a donor, the Carmelite mission,” says Parker about the Mahwah facility. “The ‛manor house’ will be a ‛treatment mall’ and have a variety of different strategies for addressing addiction.”

The holistic approach

That variety of strategies is key, according to Dr. Solhkhah. “Addiction treatment in the past has tended to be a single therapy. Our approach is holistic in that we are looking to combine all treatment interventions that are evidence-based and clinically appropriate.”

One approach will be a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit for the brain.  Long used in physical therapy to reduce pain, TENS units are being used in behavioral health to stimulate the hypothalamus gland in the brain to help prevent relapse for patients diagnosed with substance use disorder.  

“We send you out with the ability to think, to concentrate, and to experience endorphins, and so you’re much more capable of having a full recovery.”

Urgent care

Another positive result of the merger will be the introduction of behavioral health in the urgent care setting. “Urgent care is a way to try and provide psychiatric care in the community rather than providing treatment in the emergency room,” explains Dr. Solhkhah, “where patients often end up out of desperation because of a shortage of access to psychiatric care.”

Parker offers the bottom line. “Urgent care is less expensive, more accessible, more customer-friendly and we think, ultimately, a more effective way of handling behavioral health care,” he says. “Getting access to services in the field is very tough. There’s a huge shortage of psychiatrists. We have started a residency program training psychiatrists; we hope to have 30 in the program by 2021.”

Both men expect the impact of this new partnership to be substantial. “Opioid addiction today is a story of relapses and heartbreak,” says Parker. “People get the highest of hopes when their loved ones come through a treatment program. Then the treatment erodes and they succumb to the drug again.’’ That’s why Hackensack Meridian takes a comprehensive long-term approach and treats mental illness and addiction as the chronic disease it is — just like diabetes or cardiac disease.

Dr. Solhkhah sees the merger as a game-changer. “We will look to use new technologies, including tele-psychiatry, wearable devices and cutting-edge medical research to ensure that our patients are getting the best care possible.”

Jeff Somers, [email protected]

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