WASHINGTON (Oct. 26, 2022) — A new report published by Stacey McKenna, senior fellow in Integrated Harm Reduction at the R Street Institute, explores factors that hinder health care providers’ engagement in harm reduction programs and analyzes training and policy strategies aimed at solving this problem.

Harm reduction strategies seek to meet people where they are. They provide practical approaches to help reduce negative outcomes associated with potentially risky behaviors such as drug use.

Recently, in response to the rising death toll from the nationwide opioid epidemic, local, state and federal governments have considered expanding harm reduction services. Many of these services—such as take-home naloxone programs—require buy-in from generalist health care providers rather than just harm reduction organizations already familiar with the approach.

Research suggests, however, that some health care providers lack sufficient knowledge about such services, hold negative beliefs about people who use drugs or have misconceptions about how harm reduction helps improve health. These barriers can prevent providers from serving effectively as harm reductionists.

To combat the misconceptions and lack of information around harm reduction, it is crucial to understand that harm reduction is rooted in community. This means that, while the approach has always been adjacent to medicine and public health, generalist practitioners are relatively new to its implementation.

Because of this, many providers would benefit not just from engaging in skills-based education about harm reduction interventions, but also from learning about its philosophical underpinnings of nonjudgment and compassion. In addition, training about respectful communication, the harms of stigma and the ways harm reduction helps people, as well as providing opportunities to interact with and learn directly from people who use drugs, have been shown to help reduce these barriers.

McKenna adds, “[w]e posit that by taking this broad and inclusive approach to harm reduction education and support, educators and organizations will position providers to offer nonjudgmental, health-improving, potentially life-saving care to patients, whether they smoke cigarettes, use opioids or are living with diabetes.”