Opioid addiction is a mounting public health crisis. Individuals with substance use disorder are struggling with a brain disease. At our hospitals and health systems, we must promote a culture that fully understands this disease. And it’s important that health care providers make a distinction between the person and the disease: No one should be defined by his or her disease.

We never want stigma to be a barrier to care. That’s why the AHA, American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have worked together to raise awareness about the stigma associated with substance use disorder and how it can impact seeking treatment and living in recovery. 

There are many changes we can make now to remove stigma at health care organizations. For example, the words we use matter. We can consider using “substance use disorder” or “substance misuse” rather than “substance abuse” or “drug habit.” The latter terms imply it’s a choice or moral failing, instead of a chronic relapse disease. 

At Carilion Clinic, our practice revisions have included changing prescribing patterns, introducing new approaches to pain management, and starting a mental health peer support training program. 

Hospitals and health systems can equip their clinicians and staff with tools to understand stigma and its effects. The Providers’ Clinical Support System, or PCSS, provides evidence-based training and resources to give health care providers the skills and knowledge they need to treat patients with opioid use disorder, and offers ways medical professionals can reduce stigma. 

More information and resources are available at www.aha.org/behavioralhealth. We invite you to share your story.