Heather Blue: On The Front Lines of the Opioid Epidemic

Heather Blue: On The Front Lines of the Opioid Epidemic in the Classroom and in the Emergency Department

Heather BlueAssistant Professor Heather Blue enjoys her roles as an emergency medicine pharmacist, researcher and an instructor for acute care pharmacotherapy and infectious disease courses in the college.

In the Emergency Department at St. Luke’s Hospital, Blue thrives on the feeling of teamwork and the difference she is able to make for patients as the medication expert. “St. Luke’s has an amazing group of physicians, nurses and other health care providers,” said Blue. “It’s a high-stress environment, but we always come together to rally around the patient.” 

On April 26, 2018 an explosion at a Superior refinery gave Blue an opportunity to shine in that high-stress environment. A colleague sent a note to the college after the Mass Casualty Incident, commending Blue on her medication guidance and “outstanding work and leadership during the event and her competency, compassion and teamwork.”

Blue credits the team approach at St. Luke’s for the response. “This was a team response and an example of how we all came together for our patients, from the pharmacy informatics specialists helping us to quickly build medications in our electronic health record system to our partners in the Wilderness Hospital Coalition helping us to access supplies and medications quickly,” she said.

When Blue was approached by the Emergency Department’s Medical Director Nick Van Deelen, MD, to help address the high rates of opioid overdose deaths in St. Louis County, she committed to addressing the problem from all angles. “Health care professionals need to be part of the solution,” said Blue. “We can’t just put it back on our patients, rather we need to help them and change our practice to address this epidemic.”

“HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONALS NEED TO BE PART OF THE [OPIOID] SOLUTION. WE CAN’T JUST PUT IT BACK ON OUR PATIENTS, RATHER WE NEED TO HELP THEM AND CHANGE OUR PRACTICE TO ADDRESS THIS EPIDEMIC.”

Blue’s research has focused on naloxone education and distribution in the Emergency Department. In partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, and the Minnesota Pharmacists Association, Blue and her colleagues surveyed Minnesota pharmacists on their knowledge and perceptions on the Minnesota Opiate Antagonist Protocol and naloxone distribution. “Our goal was to assess barriers to naloxone distribution, as well as provide education, knowledge and support to make it more accessible to patients who may need it,” said Blue. 

The research showed barriers to naloxone distribution include concern of liability, costs, and stigma of drug abuse. “It’s stigma from the health care professional that addiction is a choice and they may be enabling the patient to abuse opioids—and stigma from the patient that they cannot trust health care professionals,” said Blue. “We know that substance abuse is a disease, but we aren’t there yet as a society and as health care professionals we may have been trained with the thought that opioids are safe if needed for pain.”

Blue and her colleagues developed an interprofessional opioid educational session in partnership with the College of Pharmacy and Medical School. “In the course, we discuss patient cases of opioid abuse, addiction, medication-assisted therapy and how as health care professionals, we need to work together to reduce the stigma to achieve positive outcomes for these patients,” said Blue. 

She added, “To effectively address addiction, we need to work together. An interdisciplinary approach is key.” 

In recognition of her contributions, Blue was named a 2018-2019 Fellow in the Academic Health Center’s new Fellowship for Teaching in Active Learning Classrooms. She was also recently inducted into the Academic Health Center’s Academy for Excellence in Health Care Practice.