Peer Recovery Navigators Help Patients with Substance Use Disorders

Posted on November 23, 2021

Covenant Health has announced a new initiative in collaboration with Knox County Health Department to help individuals struggling with substance use disorders who need emergency care. Since mid-October, two full-time peer recovery navigators from Peninsula, Covenant Health’s behavioral health service line, have been working in the emergency department at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in downtown Knoxville.

In peer recovery programs, a trained professional who has recovered from the experience of addiction is paired with someone who is facing recovery or still in the throes of addiction. The goal of the new initiative is to increase access to care for patients who come to the ED as the result of an overdose or other problems caused by substance dependency.

The initiative is funded by a grant received by Knox County Health Department (KCHD) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a part of KHCD’s newly formed Substance Misuse Response Division, which includes multiple strategies to address substance misuse in Knox County.

KCHD is working closely with Covenant Health to develop, implement and evaluate the peer recovery navigator program. A full‐time public health nurse educator at KCHD supports the initiative by sharing best practices in overdose prevention and intervention.

Peninsula, a division of Covenant Health’s Parkwest Medical Center, has a long-standing tradition of increasing access to behavioral healthcare and substance misuse treatment in the community.

Mark Potts, LCSW, director of clinical services at Peninsula, said, “Peninsula has been a pioneer in the area of peer support and recovery for more than a decade. We have provided peer support training at the state and local level, and we have been reaching out to people with substance use disorders for a long time. The recovery navigator program at Fort Sanders Regional gives us the opportunity to reach people in their time of greatest need.”

The peer recovery specialists, Stan Grubb and Tina Wright, work alongside the ED staff at Fort Sanders Regional and director Ed Brock, MD, who was instrumental in planning the program.

Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center exterior building

“A significant percentage of our patients in the emergency department are dealing with substance related issues as the primary or secondary cause of their medical conditions,” said Dr. Brock. “This program places specialists in substance misuse treatment and resources directly in our ED. The peer navigators allow us begin much more complete evaluation and support, and make more appropriate referrals to outpatient resources for these patients.”

Dr. Brock continued, “The resources available are many, but navigating the system can be difficult. So many of our patients drop through the cracks, never actually being able to locate or connect with outpatient resources. This leads to a downward spiral for these patients and repeated visits to emergency departments for intervention and initial treatment. The navigators are able to follow up with patients to ensure they are not having difficulty accessing programs. The benefits for our patients and for the people in our community are tremendous.”

According to Potts, the navigators “hit the ground running.”

“They have a keen sense of mission,” Potts said. “They provide emotional support while the patients are stabilized and begin finding ways to help them get on a better track. They can evaluate a patient’s psychological and social needs, and connect them with important outpatient resources like housing or therapy. The navigators can support the patients while they are in the hospital or follow-up with them in the community where they live.

“Substance use disease affects a person’s perception of reality and their sense of survival in ways that others have difficulty understanding. People afflicted with substance use diseases experience what most people see as self-destructive behavior in a very different way,” Potts explained. “The peer recovery navigators bring a solid understanding of both sides of the equation. They know the emergency department staff are there to care for patients’ medical needs and help them survive their illness. They also understand that people overcome substance use diseases by forming a connection with others in recovery. That’s what peer recovery is all about, and it is so powerful.”