Spotlight on Success: STEP Program Uses Yoga and Meditation to Combat Opioid Misuse

June 27, 2019

STEP program participants (at Grande View Apartments in Westernport, MD) practice breathing and balance during a 60-minute yoga session (with trauma-informed yoga instructor Sera Beth Weaver).

Health Quality Innovators (HQI) developed the Blue Bag Initiative, an easy-to-use program to facilitate medication reconciliation and help patients avoid medication errors. An extension of HQI’s efforts to reduce adverse drug events (ADEs), the Blue Bag Initiative is easy to implement in a variety of health care and community settings. One of the great successes in this program comes from Maryland Area Health Education Center West (AHEC West).

AHEC West is a rural, community-based organization serving Appalachian counties in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. To fulfill their mission to improve access to care and promote quality through educational partnerships, they collaborate with local, state, federal and private organizations (including HQI) to eliminate health disparities due to rurality, poverty, race and culture.

AHEC recognized an opioid overdose problem in Western Maryland and began working with HQI on the Blue Bag Initiative, combined with their Stretching to EmPower (STEP) Program. “We received a grant from the Office of Women’s Health for the STEP Program – a wellness education program for opioid awareness and prevention,” said Jen Thomas, Program Coordinator and Health Coach with AHEC West. “Our audience is women of all ages residing in public housing and our goals were opioid awareness and education, along with medication safety.”

Participants learned about the dangers of prescription opioids, as well as proper disposal techniques. The women who participated learned yoga and meditation exercises to cope with issues such as pain, stress and emotional distress. They also learned how to talk to their providers about their prescriptions. “We want these women to feel empowered to talk to their doctors. We want them to know how to open the lines of communication. We teach them to ask questions for themselves and their family members since they are often the caregivers,” said Thomas.

Besides HQI, they also partnered with local public housing authorities and the sheriff’s department. The public housing authorities encouraged participants that lived in their properties to bring their blue bags, along with their medications, to the program sessions. The sheriff’s department also saw an increase in the proper disposal of medications.

Participants are given a pre- and post-survey to gauge their overall health. Pre-survey questions include:

  • Have you ever done yoga?
  • Are you stressed or under emotional distress?
  • Do you have chronic pain?
  • Have opioids affected you or anyone in your family?
  • Do you have experience with breathing exercises, mindfulness or meditation?
  • What do you hope to learn in the STEP Program?

Post-survey questions include:

  • Has yoga helped you?
  • Are you making connections with others in the program?
  • Are you able to better control your overall health?
  • What have you learned?

“We want these women to learn how to ask questions, to take time for themselves, manage stress and to help with pain management,” said Thomas.

Since the program officially began in January 2017, 224 women have participated in the STEP Yoga and Wellness Program and 1,239 women have been reached through educational and outreach events. Upon completion of a 10-week STEP yoga and wellness session, feedback has been consistent through the pre and post surveys:

  • 10 out of every 12 surveyed believe yoga and mind-body skills can reduce pain
  • 10 out of 12 felt more equipped to talk to their doctor or pharmacist about opioids and/or other prescription medications
  • 11 out of 12 surveyed state that the STEP program allowed them to meet new people and form new connections
  • 12 out of 12 stated they felt more educated and empowered to make decisions about their overall health care.

Over the 10-week session, the STEP program transitioned participants from self-reported “poor” health ratings to improved health ratings, including some who moved from low ratings to “excellent” status.

“The top outcome from these programs has to be the empowerment that participants feel to take charge of their personal health and wellness,” said Thomas. “We have all learned the importance of being aware of the medications in our homes, being in control of those medications, learning to talk to your provider and really advocating for yourself.”

This program was so well received that AHEC West plans to use it in other areas that could benefit from the format.

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