Integrating harm reduction into medical care: Lessons from three models

BACKGROUND: Substance use disorders (SUDs) are at a national high, with significant morbidity and mortality. Harm reduction, a public-health strategy aimed at reducing the negative consequences of a risky behavior without necessarily eliminating the behavior, represents a useful approach to engage patients with SUDs in care. The objective of this article is to describe how 3 medical practices operationalized harm reduction as a framework toward patient care and identify the common practices undertaken across these settings to integrate harm reduction and medical care.

METHODS: We conducted a qualitative study using in-depth, semistructured interviews with 20 staff and providers at 3 integrated harm reduction and medical care sites across New York State from March to June 2021. Interview questions focused on how harm reduction approaches were implemented, how harm reduction philosophies were demonstrated in practice, and barriers to adoption.

RESULTS: The interviews resulted in 8 main themes of integrated harm reduction medical care: 1) role of provider as both learner and informer; 2) pragmatic measures of success; 3) collaborative and interdisciplinary care teams; 4) developing a stigma-free culture; 5) creating a comfortable and welcoming physical space; 6) low-threshold care with flexible scheduling; and; 7) reaching beyond the clinic to disseminate harm reduction orientation; and 8) creating robust referral networks to enhance transitions of care. These themes existed at the patient-provider level (#1 to 3), the organizational level (#4 to 6), and the level extending beyond the clinic (#7 to 8).

CONCLUSIONS: All 3 sites followed 8 common themes in delivering harm reduction–informed care, most of which are consistent with the broader movement toward patient-centered care. These practices demonstrate how medical providers may overcome some of the barriers imposed by the medical model and successfully integrate harm reduction as an orienting framework toward care delivery.

Download PDF

Full citation:
Chang JE, Lindenfeld Z, Hagan H (2023).
Integrating harm reduction into medical care: Lessons from three models
Journal of the American Board of Family Medicne, 36 (3), 449-461. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2022.220303R3. PMCID: PMC10636714.