As opioid-related overdoses and deaths increase by alarming rates in Chicago this year, The Night Ministry has partnered with the University of Illinois (UI) to expand access to substance abuse treatment among Chicago's homeless population.
Through an innovative telemedicine program, the Street Medicine Team is connecting individuals it serves on Chicago's streets with physicians at UI Mile Square Health Center who prescribe Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid addiction. Patients can have their appointments with a UI doctor over video chat or telephone call.
"The partnership directly addresses many of the challenges that folks we serve face in obtaining treatment, such as lack of transportation to in-person appointments and health insurance," said Stephan Koruba, Senior Nurse Practitioner at The Night Ministry.
"What this has done is really decreased the barriers in terms of access for patients," said Dr. Nicole Gastala, Assistant Professor of Clinical Family Medicine, UI College of Medicine, and Director of Behavioral Health and Addiction at Mile Square Health Centers. "So, we've seen significant improvement in engagement in I would say our most vulnerable and underserved patient population."
In addition to coordinating appointments between UI doctors and patients, Street Medicine provides a mobile device for temporary use if the patient does not have their own phone. The team is also able to bring the medication to the patient directly or provide bus cards to get to a pharmacy. So far, there are more than 50 participants.
Plans are in place for the program to expand to include remote mental health services,said Koruba.
"Substance abuse and mental health are some of the major factors in homelessness. This brings a lot of good care onto the streets that wasn't there before," he said.
Dr. Gastala credits the strong relationships Street Medicine has with its patients with making the program work.
"If I had gotten into a van and started talking to people, I would have never been able to do what they've been able to do," she said.
The program is also possible now because of temporary relaxations of federal regulations regarding Suboxone and telehealth, put in place because of the coronavirus, but set to expire at the end of the year. This worries Dr. Gastala.
"This is literally bringing services to the population who needs it the most," she said. "If these policies aren't continued beyond December, we're really limiting access again."