UK doctors working together to stop opioid epidemic

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - As the drug epidemic grows, people and professionals that have never crossed paths are coming together to try and solve it.

"We've been trying to find different pathway, or different ideas to help patients succeed at that goal," explained Dr. John Kotter, a cardiologist at University of Kentucky Hospital. His goal is helping patients survive a deadly infection caused by dirty needles. Endocarditis is an infection in the heart. Some patients require open heart surgery to replace heart valves. And no matter what, patients with endocarditis require long stays in the hospital, up to six weeks. "It's a real serious disease. Up to 30 percent of patients that have endocarditis, even with the best of treatment, will end up passing away within a year," explained Dr. Kotter.

Dr. Kotter has a new partner now, to help deal with the heart infections he's seeing: Dr. Laura Fannuchi is an internist at U.K. When she started working at the hospital a few years ago, she was overwhelmed with patients suffering from endocarditis. So she started trying to figure out how to deal with the root of the problem. "So, think of it this way, a patient has a very severe life-threatening medical illness: endocarditis--an infection of the lining of the heart or heart valves--so the entire reason for that infection is their chronic underlying medical illness, which is opioid use disorder," Dr. Fannuchi explained.

Dr. Fannuchi uses medically assisted treatments like buprenorphine while the patients are hospitalized. "There's a lot of data that the hospitalizations for acute medical problems like endocarditis are reachable moments for patients. So they may not initially come to the hospital wanting treatment, but endocarditis is a big deal and being hospitalized for that long and being told that you have a life-threatening illness can be a real wake-up call, and an opportunity to really engage with patients and start treatment."

The doctors have only been working together on this for about a year, so there's no real data to see it's successes or failures. Dr. Fannuchi said, "We have a lot of work to do. But it's one of the most rewarding things I've done in medicine is to provide treatment for these patients."

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