The opioid epidemic is beginning to emerge in the Indian American community, according to Vanila Singh, the new Chief Medical Officer for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Indian American physician started in her new role on June 12, but said she wanted to keep it on the down-low until she settled in. HHS Secretary Tom Price, who appointed Singh, congratulated the Stanford anesthesiologist on her new role via twitter Aug. 25.
Singh said she has known Price for a couple of years, while serving as the vice chair of the National Physicians Council on Health Policy. Price, a physician who served in Congress representing Georgia’s sixth congressional district, attended meetings of the council.
“We shared a common interest in patient-centered care,” Singh told India-West. “It is somewhat obvious, but there are so many other factors that drive health care delivery,” she said. “We discussed challenges, such as physicians having less time with their patients because of regulatory burdens that force them to spend more time on the computer.”
HHS has identified three primary areas of focus: managing the nationwide opioid epidemic, the growing crisis in mental health, and tackling childhood obesity. Singh said her background is well-suited to the role: for the past 13 years, she has been a clinical professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at Stanford. In her practice as an anesthesiologist, Singh specializes in treating patients with complex chronic pain issues.
More than two million Americans are affected by opioid overuse, said Singh, noting that at least 90 people die each day from opioid abuse. Socio-economic conditions, chronic pain, and prescription overuse are factors that bring the crisis into all ethnicities, she said.
In her practice, Singh said she has anecdotally observed an emergence of opioid abuse in the Indian American community. “It is difficult to discuss dependence, because the issue is stigmatizing. If you’re open, it’s much easier to get the treatment you need.”
Singh will be helming the newly-created Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force, mandated by Congress in the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, which allots $181 million to address the growing heroin and opioid epidemic.
The task force is a coalition of several government agencies and private medical professionals who will determine best practices for treating chronic and acute pain. Singh said the task force will consider alternatives to prescribing opiates for pain, such as treatment procedures and physical therapy. The task force will also investigate prescription practices.
“As we consider this epidemic, we have to be mindful that people are also responsibly using opioids to manage their pain,” she elaborated.
Another area of focus for Singh will be to mitigate the mental health crisis, especially among youth. The physician noted that 39 percent of people under 18 have received mental health services. Suicide rates have increased by an alarming 400 percent, said Singh, citing data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of HHS.
“Kids are feeling an increased amount of pressure, but are we better at understanding it?” queried the physician.
Lots of resources – including suicide prevention hotlines and video tutorials – are available for kids and parents to better understand mental health concerns, Singh told India-West, noting that the challenge lies in promoting these resources to the community. She advocated for grassroots efforts to manage the crisis, noting: “Local folks are the pulse of what’s going on.”
Singh herself has two children, Raina, 11, and Arjun, 10, who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the physician grew up. As she shuttles back and forth between Washington, DC and the Bay Area, the family has moved in with Singh’s in-laws.
“I couldn’t do this without the help of my husband and family,” she said.
The Republican doctor made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2014, coming up short in the primaries against former Obama trade representative Ro Khanna, and incumbent Rep. Mike Honda, who had served California’s 17th district for seven terms. Singh lost in the primary, pitting the two Democrats against each other: Khanna won the race to unseat Honda.
Asked if she would consider another bid for Congress, Singh laughingly told India-West: “Not at this time. I’m too focused on my work here.”
She will keep her clinical skills intact by serving several hours a week at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“I feel very honored to go into public service, and feel very fortunate that the president and Secretary Price have chosen such important priorities,” said Singh.