Treating Addiction by Addressing Stigma and Bettering Basic Education

Humana Segment President, Beth Bierbower and Geisinger EVP & Chief Innovation Officer, Karen Murphy, on the stigma of addiction and mental health disorders and how to address the public health crisis we are struggling with today.

Key Takeaways: It is no secret that addiction and depression rates are rising, but it is only recently that the health care industry has begun making strides to address these problems and move beyond opioids in treatment of pain.

By Michaela Katz

The opioid crisis has taken thousands of lives and rates of opioid prescription, addiction and overdose have increased dramatically during the past decade. But how did we get to a place where this was considered normal?

“The prescribing of opioids in medicine has led to the increase in addiction across the country. That’s evidence based,” said Karen Murphy, EVP and Chief Innovation Officer at Geisinger in an interview at the Health Evolution Summit. “I think the other mention is an increase in all types of diseases of despair and the self-medicating that’s happening across the country.”

Treatment for opioid addiction exists but, for several reasons, people often don’t seek treatment.

“There are a number of barriers to treatment. I think stigma is a big challenge where people are embarrassed to seek help and in self-denial, thinking that they don’t have a problem,’ added Beth Bierbower, Segment President of Humana in the same interview. “People oftentimes just don’t know where to turn to get help.”

Beyond shame or societal stigma is the fact that mental health is viewed differently than other aspects of health.

Given how much we know about the need for proper treatment of mental health disorders and addiction and the role that stigma plays in accessing treatments, it is important to address these growing trends not only with direct treatment but, also, with efforts to quell negative stigmas.

“Certainly when people take a health risk assessment, we do ask questions around alcohol use and substance abuse,” said Bierbower. “It’s really important how you phrase those questions to be able to elicit the right, accurate responses.”

In addition to asking the right questions, the right way, education needs to change to better be able to respond to, prevent and treat health problems like mental health and addiction that have previously been separated from health care.

“This is the largest public health crisis we’ve ever had. We have to start in basic education,” said Murphy, “The beginning of education has to start in health professionals’ basic education. So starting with medical school education of not only opioid prescribing but the challenges and triggers of addiction…alternatives to opioids and, the dangers really, of prescribing opioids.”

Further to acknowledging and eliminating stigma, changing health care education and better understanding the risks of opioid use and triggers of addiction, it is important that health care more broadly consider opioid alternatives.

“The other part is looking at different ways to manage pain. Where the first line of defense was opioid prescription for the last 2 decades, now we’re looking at other alternatives, more holistic alternatives” said Murphy, “At Geisinger, we’re looking, for example, at using virtual reality as a therapeutic.”

Beyond addressing societies response to addiction and mental health problems it is important to be better equipped to predict and prevent addiction.

“One of the things I think we can do better is, how do we start to anticipate somebody who might be at risk?” said Bierbower, “If we could start to recognize that when major events happen in people’s lives, that this is an opportunity for us to maybe get ahead of it and start to educate people about some avenues they have to seek help even before the problem is there.”

Watch more episodes of the Health Evolution Interview Series. The next Health Evolution Summit is scheduled for April 1-3, 2020 in Laguna Niguel, California.


Beth Bierbower

Segment President,

Beth Bierbower is Segment President for Humana. She is responsible for creating a new operating model and member experience that reduces friction in the system and helps members engage in and manage their health. Beth is a member of the Management Team, which sets the firm's strategic direction, and reports to President and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Broussard. In her prior role, Beth led Humana's Group and Specialty Bus Full bio ›

Karen Murphy

Geisinger Health System

Dr. Karen Murphy is executive vice president, chief innovation officer and founding director of the Steele Institute for Health Innovation at Geisinger. Dr. Murphy has worked to improve and transform healthcare delivery throughout her career in both the public and private sectors. Before joining Geisinger, she served as Pennsylvania’s secretary of health addressing the most significant health issues facing the state, including Full bio ›

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