ETSU Health drives research to help infants

Published 1:20 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2024

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A better future for our region’s most vulnerable population is the motivating driver for Dr. Marty Olsen, an obstetrician and gynecologist with ETSU Health who has dedicated much of his career to assisting patients with opioid use disorder.

More of East Tennessee’s children are born facing health challenges related to opioid exposure than children born in many other states.

Under Dr. Olsen’s supervision, Summer Shore, a fourth-year medical student at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine, recently uncovered a correlation between the buprenorphine prescription rate and the rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome.

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The higher the prescription rate within the region, the higher the rate of babies born with NAS symptoms – tremors, slow weight gain, vomiting, diarrhea, and even such challenges as smaller heads and altered brain structure.

Data shows that from 2010 to 2018, the NAS rate in Southern Appalachia rose by 335%. At the same time, buprenorphine prescriptions increased by 413%. This shows an association over time but does not prove one caused the other.

The Southern Medical Journal published Shore’s research in December.

“A medical student stepped up and did what a government agency should have done a long time ago,” Dr. Olsen said. “Because of this association, it’s my belief that as a society, we need to grapple with the safety of the mother and the long-term effects for the babies.”

Olsen and Shore hope that their research helps to prompt a reassessment of the standards of care and the risks and benefits that relate to lowering buprenorphine dosages during pregnancy.

Shore said that participating in her research study and learning more about the patients who struggle with opioid use disorder has prepared her to be a better physician.

“I want to be the type of physician who values improving the patient experience and values their life experiences, where they’re not treated as a problem, but as a person,” she said. “It’s a really good opportunity to be a part of advocating for a patient population that might not always be advocated for.”

At ETSU Health’s OB/GYN clinic, Olsen offers a trailblazing program for expecting patients with opioid use disorder who are receiving buprenorphine medication-assisted therapy. This voluntary program helps patients to lower their dosages over time.

Many of these patients wish to discontinue this medication while pregnant to reduce the likelihood of their children being born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

Through the program, the women receive MAT treatments, prenatal care, counseling and case management all at one site. This allows for consistent, comprehensive care that is also respectful of the patient’s autonomy, time and resources.

ETSU Health OB/GYN is located at 325 N. State of Franklin Road. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call (423) 439-7272.

With 30 clinical sites and more than 300 health care providers, ETSU Health is on the front lines of efforts to improve the health of Northeast Tennessee by offering leading-edge health care in dozens of specialties.