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AUSTIN (KXAN) – In a town hall Wednesday, Travis County medical professionals encouraged doctors to provide drugs like buprenorphine to patients with opioid use disorders to try and slow down the growing number of opioid-related deaths in Central Texas. 

“The most recent Travis County coroners report shows increasing opioid-related overdose deaths in our community. This is not only a national trend but a local one,” said Dr. Blair Walker, Chief of Psychiatry at Dell Seton Medical Center, one of the physicians speaking at the town hall. 

Opioid deaths by the numbers

Last year, more Americans died of opioid-related overdoses than any year on record. While the national trend is evening out – the number of deaths increased by only .6% percent nationwide – the number of fatalities in Texas increased by a rate of over 9%.

“Texas is not good at capturing and reporting overdose deaths. There are a lot of challenges in the data and, nonetheless, we are seeing this rapid rise,” said Dr. John Weems, an addiction specialist with CommUnityCare. 

And the trend is even more pronounced in Travis County, Weems noted.

“Last year, there was a 35% increase in total overdoes and a doubling of overdoses related to fentanyl,” Weems said. 

The rate of increase also disproportionally affected Black people, Hispanic people and women, Weems said. 

How to address the problem

But in the face of these startling statistics, there are several treatment options available to help those with opioid use disorders, including methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. 

“When patients with opioid use disorder are on methadone or buprenorphine, their risk of all-cause mortality – not just overdoses – is halved,” Weems said, quoting a recent Journal of the American Medical Association study. “This is a very effective medicine. There is no special sauce to it – it is just medicine,” Weems said. 

Weems encouraged all doctors listening to the town hall to prescribe these medications when necessary to attempt to close a pretty striking medication gap – presenting data showing that the number of people with opioid use disorders is far higher than those receiving the appropriate treatment.  

Buprenorphine is an opioid partial agnostic and produces similar effects to methadone or heroine, but the effects are much weaker, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

The substance helps people stop using other more harmful opioids which are more likely to cause overdoses by diminishing symptoms of withdrawal, per the SAMSA. 

“We’re hoping that those of you who have been wanting to help and just haven’t been ready to try it out yet will feel more empowered and comfortable prescribing buprenorphine so you can help us save more lives in Travis County and beyond,” Walker said, addressing the doctors listening to the townhall.