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La Crosse County leaders recognized for combatting the opioid epidemic

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La Crosse County leaders were honored at a reception Wednesday at the Freight House Restaurant for implementing a collaborative program that reduces opioid use while connecting people to dental care.

According to the Wisconsin Hospital Association, approximately 18,000 patients a year present in Emergency Departments and Urgent Care Centers in Wisconsin with “nontraumatic dental pain,” or pain not caused by an accident but caused by a broken or infected tooth or gums.

“In the not-too-distant past, those patients would be given 20-30 opioid pills, a prescription for antibiotics, and then sent out the door,” says Dr. David Gundersen, a La Crosse native and member of the WDPP Advisory Group. “When you do the math, the numbers are quite alarming that hundreds of thousands of opioid pills are floating around in our communities. Pills that set the stage for life-long dependency and even death,” he continued. It was recently released by the CDC that over 100,000 people died in the U.S. from drug overdoses in 2021. Over 75,000 of those deaths were from opioid overdoses.

That’s why in 2019 local leaders from La Crosse County’s Alliance to Heal, a coalition of health care, education, public health and community leaders fighting addiction, sought out help based on a new model from Dane County. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via the Wisconsin Department of Health, La Crosse became the first community to pilot this new approach, which became known as the Wisconsin Dental Pain Protocol.

The WDPP is a systemic approach implemented by communities to reduce opioid use for patients presenting in Emergency Departments and Urgent Care Centers with non-traumatic dental pain. Through the process of implementing the WDPP, La Crosse physicians, nurses, and PAs were taught how give local anesthetic shots, use effective non-opioid and opioid pain control, and the best ways to get dental infections under control. Most notably, on discharge, a system was established to connect patients with a care coordinator who helped them find dentists. Those dentists then take care of the problem and get the patients out of pain.

But the WDPP would likely never have existed without La Crosse’s leadership.

“They really took the process and owned it, and demonstrated how the model can be adapted in communities across the state—and potentially the nation, even in the midst of a global pandemic,” added Gundersen.

The WDPP has now been implemented in Polk and Barron counties and will be rolled out in the Green Bay area this coming year. The CDC and Indian Health Service have also expressed interest in the model.

Audra Martine, Health Officer for the La Crosse County Health Department summed it up. “The impacts of La Crosse County’s leadership are just beginning. Not only does the WDPP assure people are getting important dental care, but it will also reduce the number of opioid pills in our community — and that will save lives.”

"In the not-too-distant past, those patients would be given 20-30 opioid pills, a prescription for antibiotics, and then sent out the door. When you do the math, the numbers are quite alarming that hundreds of thousands of opioid pills are floating around in our communities. Pills that set the stage for life-long dependency and even death."

Dr. David Gundersen, La Crosse native and member of the WDPP Advisory Group

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