Expanded peer support program at Union Hospital increases access to care for substance use disorders

ChristianaCare Union Hospital is tackling the stigma around seeking treatment for substance use disorders by teaming up with the Cecil County Health Department and Voices of Hope. Ten peer recovery specialists are now available at Union Hospital daily from 8:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., offering behavioral health care navigation and access to treatment for patients who have experienced a drug overdose or live with substance use disorders.

Patients brought to the Emergency Department due to a drug overdose or screening positive for substance use during their hospital stay can connect with certified peer recovery specialists. While speaking with a specialist is not mandatory, their unique blend of personal experience and training provides an opportunity for individuals with substance use disorders to seek help without fear of judgment.

Because peer support specialists have lived experience with substance use disorder and recovery, along with specialized training to support people struggling with mental health or substance use issues, they can connect with patients on a personal level and offer empathetic guidance, said Lauren Levy, health officer for the Cecil County Health Department.

“Allowing peer recovery specialists to engage bedside with patients who may be struggling with substance use disorders will not only enhance access to behavioral health treatment but will also help reduce stigma surrounding substance use disorders and foster a more compassionate and supportive community,” Levy said.

“We are honored to be a part of this innovative private-public collaboration and to work alongside ChristianaCare Union Hospital and Voices of Hope, Inc.,” she said.

“This project helps to break down barriers to treatment and provide immediate support to those in need.”

Dr. Lanre Akinkunmi, interim chief medical officer at ChristianaCare Cecil County Campus, emphasizes the treatability of substance use disorder, highlighting the receptiveness of patients in hospitals to discussions about treatment. The collaboration aims to impact the health of patients and the community positively.

The peer recovery specialists, supported by a grant from the National Association of County and City Health Officials, are employed by the Cecil County Health Department on weekdays and by Voices of Hope on evenings and weekends. The collaborative effort has resulted in about 40 referrals since September, with over half of the individuals agreeing to some form of treatment.

Cecil County’s elevated death rate from drug overdoses underscores the urgency of such programs. The death rate more than doubled between 2016 and 2020, emphasizing the critical need for accessible behavioral health treatment. Cecil County’s death rate from drug overdoses is nearly twice as high as the rest of Maryland and more than three times the U.S. rate. The drug overdose death rate in Cecil County more than doubled between 2016 and 2020, according to the 2022 Cecil County Community Health Needs Assessment.

The peer support specialists, drawing from lived experiences, connect with patients on a personal level, offering empathetic guidance. This approach helps reduce the stigma surrounding substance use disorders, fostering a compassionate and supportive community.

ChristianaCare’s commitment to peer recovery programs dates back to 2008, and the current collaboration with Cecil County organizations signifies a renewed effort. The program’s success lies in its ability to break down barriers to treatment, providing immediate support to those in need.

As Erin Wright, chief operations officer for Voices of Hope, notes, community-based organizations hold a valuable perspective in caring for individuals with substance use disorders. Having experienced recovery themselves, peer recovery specialists offer empathy that transcends the desire for treatment. While not available to some in the past, this program aims to make recovery more accessible for others, planting seeds of hope for a healthier future.