GREAT BARRINGTON — In the face of a chronic opioid epidemic, a South County health care organization is working to stem the tide of addiction through alternative pain therapy.
Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires recently convened an interdisciplinary task force at Fairview Hospital that adopted the strategy of taking a more proactive approach, according to Arthur Peisner, chairman of the VIM board.
"We're approaching the problem from the standpoint of prevention," he said.
Peisner said VIM Berkshire has had considerable success in non-opioid pain management, but the pool of information remains too small. Now, the group is aiming to expand the program to North County.
The task force already has taken the next step, which is to break off into a smaller group to refine the program and seek funding for the project.
The opioid crisis killed 24 people in Berkshire County last year, up from 21 in 2014, according to statistics released by the state Department of Public Health. The toll has been rising steadily since 2009, when there were three deaths. A similar rise has been taking place statewide, with 1,117 deaths last year.
The VIM meeting last month featured a lineup of organizations and individuals on the front lines of the opioid crisis.
It included Nancy F. Mills, a nutritionist and member of the VIM board; medical professionals from Berkshire Health Systems, the Massachusetts Medical Society, the Brien Center for Substance Abuse and Mental Health, the Pittsfield Department of Health, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the Railroad Street Youth Project; area medical providers; several alternative health care professionals; and volunteers and staff from VIM Berkshires.
Volunteers in Medicine is a nonprofit consortium of doctors, medical professionals and lay people who provide a host of medical and health-related services to the eligible uninsured and underinsured population of Southern Berkshire County.
The organization, part of a national chain, was begun in town in 2004. It was the first such clinic in New England and remains the only one in Massachusetts.
"Clinicians here at VIM Berkshires routinely provide comprehensive non-opioid pain management using a holistic model of integrated care," said Ilana Steinhauer, clinical care coordinator at VIM. "We convened this meeting because we believe our clinics' methods work well to alleviate our patients' pain without the use of opioids."
Steinhauer has been studying a host of pain management studies in recent years. Her conclusion is that opioids clearly reduce pain, but they do not necessarily eliminate it. Nor do patients recover faster using opioids.
She cited a recent study in 2013 in England of 1,843 patients with chronic pain. Patients treated with opioids for more than seven days, she said, were twice as likely to remain disabled.
Peisner said VIM patients with chronic pain are routinely provided with services such acupuncture, massage, mental health counseling, nutrition advice and support group participation.
He acknowledged that such treatments are not the cure-all for all ailments treated with opioids. Cancer patients and post-operative patients may not respond as well as patients with chronic pain, he said.
On the other hand, Peisner said, those suffering from chronic pain are most likely to see it evolved into addiction. Those sufferers, he said, are the targets of the task force.
State Rep. William "Smitty' Pignatelli was one of the key legislators who urged these various groups to come together to pool their knowledge and resources.
"People are dying daily from opioid addiction," Pignatelli said. "It is a major problem here in the Berkshires and across the country.
"Too many people believe the way to deal with chronic pain is to take a pill," he said. "But that should be the last resort, not the first."
Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.