Harm Reduction Definition: What Is Harm Reduction?

Clinical Reviewer
The term “harm reduction” is gaining traction among those involved in the fight against opioid and alcohol addiction. So, what is it exactly?

Harm Reduction Definition

“Harm reduction refers to policies, programs and practices that aim primarily to reduce the adverse health, social and economic consequences of the use of legal and illegal drugs without necessarily reducing drug consumption.”

Harm reduction acknowledges that the world is not drug-free and if people are going to use drugs, then it’s better to use them in a safer environment in order to minimize the number of overdose deaths that occur. 

Methadone clinics (like Symetria) are usually considered harm reduction because methadone overdose is possible when mixed with other drugs, though around 10x less likely than other opioids. 

Goals of Harm Reduction

Harm Reduction in Treatment

Healthcare providers that use a harm reduction model meet patients where they are and encourage them to be as healthy as possible. The tone is non-judgmental and non-coercive.

Even if a patient doesn’t follow the recommended treatment plan, providers teach them skills to:

The ultimate goal of harm reduction practice is to empower individuals who misuse substances to make their own decisions and define recovery in their own terms. This approach values collaboration between provider and patient.

6 Principles of Harm Reduction in Treatment

Applying these six principles of harm reduction helps improve the quality of the provider-patient relationship, which may also improve clinical care outcomes and treatment adherence.

Harm Reduction Examples

Harm reduction can be a specific initiative, but it can also be a mindset to how people struggling with substances are treated — by society, within the laws, by law enforcement, by families or by healthcare professionals, for example.

Harm Reduction Advice

Harm Reduction Programs

Harm reduction began as a grass-roots movement in the 1980s during the HIV crisis. It started with needle exchange programs to ensure that if someone was injecting drugs, such as heroin, they were doing it safely and not spreading the disease. 

Today, organized harm reduction groups still provide needle exchanges as well as safe injection sites which go a step further to provide 24/7 supervision and connection to mental health resources. 

Additionally, harm reduction groups like The Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) advocate for the decriminalization of drugs and for Good Samaritan laws that offer legal protection to those seeking medical care for themselves or others during an overdose. 

Another important initiative of harm reduction groups is to distribute and educate on how to use naloxone, the anti-overdose drug. Naloxone (Narcan) training can be geared toward families of those using, the general public, healthcare providers or police forces. 

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) programs that include the use of Suboxone or methadone are also considered harm reduction in contrast to the traditional abstinence-only programs. 

Getting Harm Reduction Treatment

"If treatment is on a linear continuum with abstinence-based and harm reduction on opposite ends, Symetria is much close to the harm reduction side. The goal here is to help patients stop using as soon as possible. However, we don't kick someone out of treatment for lapsing, even multiple times. We let patients drive their own treatment. Working together with care and respect and on a patient-by-patient basis to help them meet the goals they set for themselves."

Harm Reduction Addiction Treatment

Symetria doctors follow rigorous sourcing guidelines and cite only trustworthy sources of information, including peer-reviewed journals, court records, academic organizations, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, government reports and their own expertise with decades in the field.

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