The College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC) and the Foundation for Advancing Family Medicine (FAFM) has named a Downtown Eastside doctor as one of its 2018 family physicians of the year.
Dr. Christy Sutherland is a medical director for PHS Community Services Society (also known as the Portland Hotel Society), education physician lead for the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, and a clinical assistant professor at UBC. A CFPC media release describes recipients of the annual award as doctors who "are skilled clinicians, they are community-based, they serve as resources to the people around them, and they value the patient-doctor relationship."
In a telephone interview, Sutherland described the award as a recognition of doctors working on the front lines of Canada's opioid epidemic.
"It really shows that the College of Family Physicians is supportive of harm reduction and very supportive of kind interventions for people who use drugs," she told the Straight. "People who use drugs need robust primary care and a family doctor that cares about them. And they need advocacy for changing the system so that they are safer during this overdose crisis."
Based out of a small clinic near the corner of East Hastings Street and Columbia Street, Sutherland leads a team that provides medical care to tenants of PHS's supportive-housing buildings, of which there are more than a dozen in the neighbourhood. Her work consists of providing health care for people who are diagnosed with severe mental-health issues, people who struggle with addictions to drugs and alcohol, and people who have a chronic illness such as HIV, hepatitis C, or diabetes.
Sutherland is best known for her work on addiction.
As previously reported by the Straight, she has pioneered the expansion of an opioid-substitution program in which she administers injectable hydromorphone—a powerful prescription painkiller—in an off-label capacity to patients who struggle with an addiction.
The program—which Sutherland notes she based on a similar operation that's run out of the Downtown Eastside's Crosstown Clinic—spares long-time addicts from risks of the daily hustle that comes with purchasing drugs on the street. It sees patients receive pharmaceutical opioids that are clean and of a specfic dose from a nurse instead of unknown substances that patients would otherwise buy from dealers who work on the street.
Sutherland said that after just a few weeks, she has watched many of her patients transition from a chaotic life spent in back alleys to a stable life where they are able to find long-term housing, reconnect with friends and family, and leave petty crime behind and rejoin the legitimate economy.
"Often, with a terrible heroin addiction, people spend their whole time, everyday, like a full-time job, trying to get heroin to avoid withdrawal," Sutherland explained. "Once you break that cycle for a person, it's like, 'Welcome back to the world'.
Sutherland launched her hydromorphone program in September 2016. At first, she proceeded slowly, for a time only enrolling a handful of patients before gradually scaling up to include more. Eventually, she partnered with Bobby Milroy, director of the Downtown Eastside's Pier Health Resource Centre. Now the two of them see more than 50 patients receive injectable hydromorphone.
Sutherland said the next step that she's working on now is a sort-of education drive, helping other doctors across Canada become aware that injectable hydromorphone is available as a substitute for patients addicted to opioids an who have failed with more traditional treatments such as methadone.
"We have to share the evidence that shows that for some patients, this is really effective," she said.More