Episode 3: “We Treat People With Dignity”: An Alternative Healthcare Clinic for People Who Use Drugs

People who use drugs face obstacles, like homelessness and stigma, that hinder their access to healthcare. Dr. Brianna Norton opened the Montefiore-NYHRE Clinic, a first-of its kind academic medical center, to serve marginalized people holistically and respectfully.

Welcome back to Contagion’s new podcast, Contagion Community, where we delve into some of the social factors that create and widen healthcare disparities.

Traditional healthcare systems can be inhospitable to people who use drugs. The Montefiore-NYHRE Clinic is an alternative academic medical center that promotes the holistic health and dignity of marginalized people who use drugs.

Today, associate editor Nina Cosdon interviews Brianna Norton, DO, MPH, an assistant professor in the Montefiore Einstein Department of Medicine (General Internal Medicine) and the medical director of New York Harm Reduction Editors (NYHRE).

Norton founded the Montefiore-NYHRE Clinic, which cares for people struggling with substance use disorders.

Norton describes NYHRE as “a drop-in center, a syringe service program, and an overdose prevention center.” The clinic is located in East Harlem, but also has vans throughout the Bronx. “We reduced the barriers to access to healthcare by embedding a clinic within the community-based organization,” Norton explained.

“The focus,” Norton says, “is on the dignity and health of people who use drugs and sex workers.” NYHRE serves patients who are typically marginalized by society, and even by healthcare workers, with the goal of giving them a safe space to get the care they need from physicians they can feel comfortable trusting.

Norton said that some of the barriers her patients face are logistical, and stem from social determinants of health. Many normalcies of traditional American healthcare systems, like strict appointment times or copays, are impenetrable for marginalized populations. Norton says, “On top of the social determinants of health, there is a tremendous amount of stigma in the traditional healthcare system when it comes to people who use drugs.”

The Montefiore-NYHRE Clinic seeks to alleviate some of these challenges by seeing their patients as equal human beings, as people not defined by their substance use. “There’s this stigma that if you’re using drugs, you don’t care about your whole body,” Norton said, “and it’s just not true.”

“If you combine syringe service programs with substance use disorder treatment, which is what we’re doing, you can actually reduce HIV and Hep C by two-thirds.”

Norton also discussed the importance of addressing the reason the patient came into the office, rather than focusing on getting the person to stop using drugs. The Montefiore-NYHRE Clinic focuses on keeping people safe until they are ready to enter substance use disorder treatment. Norton emphasized, “I always say, you cannot get someone into treatment if they are not alive.”

“The whole philosophy of Osteopathic Medicine is seeing the patient as a whole, rather than in individual parts…It’s an asset in my practice today, because I’m open to a spectrum of treatments.”

Some of the specialized services the clinic provides are pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), and HepC, HIV, and opioid use treatment.

The long-term goal is to offer wholistic care that makes patients feel safe seeing and trusting a doctor, so that as they age and require medical attention beyond what the clinic can provide, they will feel comfortable navigating traditional healthcare systems.

“What we’re saying is if you’re currently not going to stop using drugs at this very moment, let’s just give you the tools to use in a way that is safer, than can reduce harm…This is not a new concept, it’s just that people stigmatize the concept when it’s related to drug use.”

Read more about the Montefiore-NYHRE Clinic.

Missed Episode 2 of Contagion Community? Listen here.

Listen in on the conversation and feel free to offer your feedback on this episode, interest in participating in the podcast, or suggest ideas for future episodes. Please email your correspondence to Nina Cosdon: ncosdon@mjhlifesciences.com.