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New research on reducing harm for people who use methamphetamine

London the second place in North America to implement harm reduction strategies within hospital walls

A person holding a safe injection kit

At a virtual event, a research team led by Lawson Health Research Institute announced details of the Methamphetamine Harm Reduction Project that will study the integration of harm reduction strategies into hospital settings for people who use methamphetamine. 


Evidence-based harm reduction strategies for methamphetamine use, for example needle/syringe services, supervised injection sites and safe supplies, have been used in the community to reduce health risks such as infection and overdose.

“Harm reduction strategies are rarely used within hospitals in Canada. The current standard of care does not allow the use of illicit substances in hospitals as the safe consumption of substances requires an exemption under section 56.1 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act from Health Canada,” explains Dr. Cheryl Forchuk, Assistant Scientific Director at Lawson and study co-principal investigator.

Recent studies from London, Ontario found that substance use in hospital is happening and poses a greater risk of infection than in the community. 

“There is an assumption that people in hospital aren’t using, but in fact we’ve found that almost 50 per cent of patients admitted to hospital with an infection related to substance use are continuing to inject during their stay. That is clearly an underestimate because many patients are worried about being stigmatized or other consequences of using in hospital and so may not be willing to report it to researchers or tell their health care providers,” explains Dr. Michael Silverman, Associate Scientist at Lawson, city-wide Chair/Chief of Infectious Diseases for London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) and St. Joseph’s Health Care London, and study co-principal investigator.  

Findings have shown that patients are more likely to get an infection related to substance use when being treated in the hospital as opposed to other settings and many people who are using leave hospital against medical advice, putting their health and safety at risk. “People aren’t able to access safe ways to use substances and they are doing it in secret, so it’s not the best way to do it to prevent infection. There are also gaps in support for withdrawal and other addiction services,” says Dr. Silverman.  

The research team will lead a four-year project with recruitment of up to 360 adults aged 16-85 years with past experience or current use of methamphetamine, including inpatients, outpatients and those in community outreach programs. Up to 180 health care and service providers will be recruited to share their perspectives on harm reduction strategies. After the consultation phase in the first year, with approval from Health Canada, the identified set of strategies based on the perspectives of people with lived experience will be implemented within LHSC and St. Joseph’s hospital sites. 

“To our knowledge, there are only five supervised consumption services based in acute care hospitals in the world. Three of these sites are in Europe and there are two locations in Canada that have implemented a similar approach. London will be the second place in North America to implement harm reduction strategies for substance users within hospital walls,” adds Dr. Forchuk.

“We are leading the way towards a groundbreaking shift to greatly improve health care for Canadians who use substances.”  

Potential harm reduction strategies are safe injection sites or safe places to use substances, new needles and syringes, available Sharp boxes, support for detox and withdrawal, medication, resources at discharge, and enhanced addiction services and counseling.  

Sonja Burke, the Director of Harm Reduction Services at the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection, notes there has been a marked increase in more complex health care needs and a high rate of deaths in the community for people who are experiencing homelessness and addiction. 

“Harm reduction is about meeting people where they are without stigma or assumptions, accepting that substance use is a part of their life,” says Burke. “Our experience in the supervised consumption services proves that once a person is able to use their pre-obtained substances, they will engage in further supports for their health care. We have to change how the supports are being provided within the system to ensure we are reducing health risks and death.”