[0:00:03] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the Vital Spark podcast brought to you by Spark Biomedical, and hosted by our very own Chief Commercial Officer, Daniel Wagner. Join us as we discover the heroes, the experts, and the advancements that are reshaping opioid recovery care. Ready to spark some innovation? The journey forward begins now.
[0:00:34] DW: You've seen on TV, in the news, and on social media, sadly, the opioid epidemic is not going away anytime soon. Here at Vital Spark, we're bringing together the brightest minds in opioid use disorder to find more innovative treatment options, communities affected, and a better path forward for the providers and patients they serve. I'm Dan Wagner, Chief Commercial Officer for Spark Biomedical and your host for Vital Spark.
Today, I'm joined by Mrs. Tiffany Wharton, Founder and Executive Director of HOPE, Heroes of the Prescription Epidemic. Let's get into the show to learn how she is building a brighter public image and ensuring access to bioelectric medicine for adults with opioid use disorder. Welcome, Tiffany. Great to see you and great to have you on Vital Spark today.
[0:01:22] TW: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.
[0:01:25] DW: Excellent. Well, jumping right into it, you are a woman of many talents. You are a tenured financial advisor based in Wisconsin, you're a mother, a person who has developed a passion for community involvement in all of the communities she's been involved with. Most recently, you've taken your title as Mrs. Wisconsin, and created a megaphone for your organization, HOPE. Why don't we start off by talking a little bit about your journey to founding that organization?
[0:01:59] TW: Of course. Last October, I had the pleasure of attending the Tech Titans Awards Gala in Dallas, and was able to hear your CEO, Dan Powell speak when he won an award for CEO of the Year. Every other CEO got up there, and accepted their awards graciously, and gave a great speech. But when Dan got up there, he talked about the work that you're doing and the people that you're impacting. You could feel the palpable ripple in the audience, how impressed everybody was, and how important everyone knew this cause truly is.
At that point in time, I felt charged to do something. I didn't know what I was going to do yet, but I knew I wanted to do something to help bring this to more people. And because I am so involved in my community, I knew that this was a great way to take the bull by the horns and run with it. So HOPE was created.
[0:02:56] DW: That's awesome. That's awesome. With that creation of HOPE, what is the big change that you're looking to deliver with the organization?
[0:03:05] TW: There's a couple of things I think we're looking to deliver. First and foremost, we really would like to deliver an alternative or additional method for treating those who are suffering from opioid use disorder. Medication therapies have been the golden standard for so long, and they do work. But they don't always work for everyone. What I saw with Spark was the opportunity to present another option for those who are seeking recovery and sobriety. And for HOPE to then create that financial link to people who are looking for that sobriety, that maybe they can't afford the device just yet because it is not covered by insurance.
The second thing that we're hoping to do with hope is to de-stigmatize substance use disorder. What I've seen in my work with HOPE so far is that there is a terrible narrative surrounding substance use disorder. I've learned a lot just in the last couple of months. One of the things I learned is that doctors are actually not taught anything about substance use disorder in their medical studies. That's an additional requirement for them to go back and learn about how to treat patients with SUD. So the stigma isn't only in our communities, but it's also in the medical community. Part of HOPE's journey is to help destigmatize that narrative and talk about it in a way that's positive, that's uplifting, and that brings the light to this disease that people are suffering from and raises the awareness.
[0:04:37] DW: Absolutely. That makes good sense. We've been in behavioral health and substance use disorder. It's really a big, big tent. There are many well-known names that exist out in the zeitgeist of our community who are open about their struggles, and their journey through substance use disorder, and a lot of their victories too. I think so many times, it seems that the press cycle, we pick up on the negatives, we pick up on the failures.
A lot of the positives that are out there, they get swept to page five of the news cycle. But also, what a great thing to use your platform to accentuate the positives that are happening in the community, because as you mentioned, it certainly affects all of us equally. This doesn't discriminate as it goes within our communities. Everybody is equally affected.
Speaking of that, and since it is such a big tent, as you build out your organization, HOPE, I know from speaking with you briefly before, but I'd love for you to share with our audience, it's not just you within the organization. You've named a board of directors, a very well-qualified group of board of directors. Can you take us through that process and how you wanted it to be representative of the mission that you're taking on within the organization?
[0:05:53] TW: Absolutely. My board will tell you, a lot of them were voluntold to be a part of the board. Apparently, I'm very influential. But all jokes aside, they all take a large part in the decision-making process, and the innovative parts of the organization, and have a vested interest in what we do. We're spread from California to North Carolina. We've got people all over the country. I feel that not only the geographic location, but the demographic is well represented. We've got an ex-tech exec on our board, we've got a doctor on our board, and an attorney on our board now, which I'm really excited about.
I feel like we have a very robust and well-rounded group that has different backgrounds, and different visions, and different ideas to bring to the table. Because, well, I am kind of known as the good idea fairy, and I believe I have unlimited bandwidth, and can bring all of this energy into the room. My board then centers me, and grounds me, and is able to then, alongside me, present ideas and bring them to life in a logical and timely way. I think if it was just me, we'd be all over the place, because my brain is just – that's how I work. I'm excited about this mission and I want to do as much as possible. My board is there to make sure that things get done orderly and are well-represented for us.
[0:07:16] DW: That's awesome. That's awesome. What a great group to rely on and be able to use as a sounding board to direct this really important work that you've taken on. As you progress and as you take on that work, one of the first things that is really your calling sign to the entire world when you create an organization is your name. You've landed on a very interesting name and acronym, HOPE. I would love to hear how you came up with that naming convention and in picking that name, what it is that you hope to be your shingle to the outside world as you execute?
[0:07:54] TW: Sure. Well, it was a long process. We came up with some pretty terrible names to start with. I can't even tell you how exactly we landed on HOPE. But when we landed there, we knew it was right. Because as we've talked about, when you are looking for recovery, and sobriety, there's a couple of things that you need. One is a healthy dose of desperation, and two, is the hope that you can recover, and that you can achieve sobriety. Having HOPE then stand for Heroes of the Prescription Epidemic really identifies our mission and our purpose, and what we're looking to do with the people who are suffering, who are looking for a way to climb out of that darkness.
[0:08:38] DW: Yes, very interesting. That hope, that hand that goes out to the person who still suffers, that's a very vital link. Certainly, I've witnessed it in my community. It can be very, very dark for individuals. The options can seem limited. But you know, the old adage, it only gets darkest before the dawn. You need to be able to see that first light though. I love the idea of hope being that billboard of your organization as you bring this forward. Great selection. The fact that the acronym lines up so nicely, I mean, it rolls off the tongue.
In that and through that journey, we've talked about your initial inspiration, and I think layered on the foundation you already had of being such an involved community leader. Then now, with this platform, and congratulations on being crowned Mrs. Wisconsin. That's quite a thing.
[0:09:34] TW: Thank you.
[0:09:35] DW: Absolutely. Certainly, something I will not accomplish. But no, I think it's awesome. Specifically in your journeys, whether it be that grassroots community organization, your professional life, your role and title as a mother, and as Mrs. Wisconsin, how has this journey, and now with HOPE, changed your perspective or lent a new perspective to substance use disorder in the United States?
[0:10:05] TW: Well, first and foremost, it's bigger than I ever imagined. I understand it's in the news, and people see it every day. It affects so many people. But you don't really understand what that means until you're acquainted with it very intimately, like I have been in the last several months. Talking with various organizations who also deal in the substance use disorder community, there's a lot of work to do, there's a lot of work to do. I say that very genuinely in that the resources that are available for people who are suffering are very limited.
I learned a lot in the last couple of months about what is available and how you can seek those resources. For example, medication therapies, you have to have a licensed doctor to prescribe the treatments, and you have to have it in a specific clinic setting. In Wisconsin, I want to say with the mobile units, we're only at 46 total places that people can receive those kinds of treatment, and that's for the entire state. That's huge, right? I've learned that not only is it a big problem, but the resources are very limited. So seeing that white space gave me the opportunity to present this wonderful device that you have created with your organization as an alternative, or an additional method to the already existing treatments that are available to maybe help more people get out of that dark space and back into the light.
[0:11:32] DW: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. When you mentioned big, I mean, and you mentioned beyond the headlines in the media, and things like that, can you help to personify that a little bit more? I mean, what is big as you look at this as an epidemic in the US?
[0:11:48] TW: Well, one in three people suffer in some way, whether it's directly or indirectly, it's themselves, a family member. If you put that into context of the people that surround you, we have six people in our family, myself, my husband, and our four kids. That would mean that two of us in our family have been directly or indirectly impacted by opioid use disorder. That's huge, because I think about who's been impacted in my family. I can already tell you that I know two of us have been impacted by it, just based on our personal experiences. That doesn't go to say that my kids haven't already been exposed to it in some way in their school or in other relationships. This epidemic is just, it's a crisis, and it needs us more now than ever.
[0:12:34] DW: Now, that's really interesting. I think that stat, one in three, it's interesting, I was talking with some physicians and a physicians group over the weekend. Sometimes kind of layering in what you've shared about the education process with physicians in the United States. One of the pieces of feedback I got was, these are primary care, general practice physicians, great folks. But many of them felt that, "Hey, I don't see substance use disorder in my office or in my practice." Just thinking about it critically, as we think about that statistic, that one in three. I mean, the reality is, it probably exists not only within the practice, but also, without even going one, or two, three steps, like the seven degrees of Kevin Bacon. We don't even have to play that game. You can pretty well look at and find patients who are probably affected within the existing Rolodexes and the families that those practices serve. That's very interesting.
I think, to your point, we look for the white space, as you mentioned, in looking for solutions here as we solve an epidemic. I think that's really critical. That's one of the things that was magnetic, as we got to know your organization, and what you put together at HOPE, is that truly building in the white spaces, is probably the only way that we change the paradigm here to solve this for the patients who are affected. Speaking of which, in solving that, in building in the white spaces, I understand that you're expanding, and you're looking to build this network outward. I would love to hear and share with our audience how you're looking to expand the work at HOPE, and what are you looking for in partners as you expand that message and those services outwards?
[0:14:22] TW: Yes. Specifically, we're looking for organizations who would benefit from the [inaudible 0:14:27] Therapy System, or any of the other offerings that we have under the HOPE umbrella. Places that maybe see a lot of activity in the opioid use disorder community beneficiaries that come through that are suffering. We're starting to identify some very specific organizations in the social work community, the public health communities, and just external organizations, maybe in the unhoused populations, that we'll see some of these things that go hand in hand.
Pilot programs are one of our initiatives to expand. In line with that is fundraising. Obviously, every nonprofit's journey to the top is through fundraising. I can't think of a much better cause than this, because it's not just about helping people achieve sobriety. It is bringing things full circle, because when you have a healthy individual, you have a healthier community, you have a more productive community, you have families that are reunified or stay together, you have an individual or individuals that can stay in their jobs, and then can continue to produce for the community.
So it's so much more than just helping an adult or an individual achieve that sobriety and recovery. It is quite literally a community effort and a community benefit when we're helping people. Fundraising is not just for the person, it's for everybody who is impacted by that person.
Outside of the organization, outside of HOPE, personally, I'm looking for sponsorships to help put me on that national stage as Mrs. Wisconsin at the Mrs. United States pageant. Because as a halo effect, you sponsor me to step onto that stage, and use that larger megaphone, and network with all of those amazing women that are up there. You also get that spotlight when I talk about what I do through HOPE, and what my board is doing, what my organization is doing. You get to come along for that journey with me, and see the impact that you have, and you get to use my megaphone as well. There's three ways to help: fundraising, sponsoring, and pilot programs. That's our main goal. Happy to talk to anybody at this stage, because if we help just one person, I feel like we succeeded.
[0:16:48] DW: Wow, that's awesome. It's awesome. I think kudos to you for using that platform in that stage to get this word out. Too many times when I talk to folks and I say, "Hey, I work in the substance use disorder industry,” it kind of goes one of two ways. One is, someone will share with me a personal story. I'm always very grateful for that, because I think that requires a lot of trust, and honesty, which is really the foundation for any good communication. But I always am very appreciative of the individual who shares that. The second is that, you kind of get that blank stare, and you get the stereotypical kind of feeling or discussion that we're talking about somebody who doesn't exist in my community.
For you to put the spotlight on this, and to look at, both on a state, and then on a federal stage. True thing, as you said, one in three. These are people not just in our community, but these are our leaders within the communities. These are our future leaders in the communities. I think, what a great message too on the fundraising front. As we look at the entire epidemic, it's not just about limiting mortality. Of course, that's like a frontline statistic. But as we look at developing this, and developing as a culture, and as a society, it truly is about those minds, those individuals, those people having the opportunities to produce as employees, as inventors, as leaders, as spouses, and as parents.
I mean, really, the gift of hope, and then the gift of that second life, it can be transformative. Not just to the individuals, but to your point, the communities that they serve. Because we're all serving a community, whether we like it or not. That's a great message of stewardship.
I think just to emphasize further, if you are interested in supporting HOPE, if you are interested in supporting Mrs. Wisconsin on her journey, we're going to put up some information right now, and we'll also link it in the subtext to the podcast as to how you can get a hold of HOPE. That is the Heroes of the Prescription Epidemic Organization, and reach out to their board, discuss further sponsorship opportunities. Also, we’d be remiss if we didn't mention the opportunity to pilot, so that is welcoming bioelectric medicine and alternative solutions into your communities.
Tiffany, I believe all of these are evidence-based therapies, correct?
[0:19:26] TW: Correct. Yes.
[0:19:28] DW: This is evidence-based, it's backed by science. We'll also include in those links there, opportunities if you'd like to support Mrs. Wisconsin, Tiffany Wharton on her journey to the national stage. That's awesome. Thank you.
[0:19:40] TW: Thank you.
[0:19:42] DW: In the next segment here, Tiffany, I'm wondering, how do you see the role — so we've talked about involvement of sponsors, community leaders, you've assembled this tremendous board of directors, very qualified in their own right. Then we've got you your foundation of community service and your platform. What do you see the role of bioelectric medicine and solutions in helping you get to this future that you envision with HOPE and your organization?
[0:20:14] TW: I think it's a method that most people can benefit from in some way, because it's so easy to use. It's not something that you have to go through extensive training, and you have to be monitored by a doctor constantly. This is something that once you are in receipt of the device, anybody can truly use it. Like you said, with the science backing, how this device works, and how it can help patients who are suffering come off of the opioids with minimal or no withdrawal symptoms. That's incredible. You're not having to go to a detox center to use this.
You can use it in the comfort of your home. You can use it driving down the road. You can use it sitting in your office. You can use it anywhere. I think detaching yourself from the need to have to be in one spot or be monitored for hours is just incredible. It gives you that freedom, it gives you control. What I've heard a lot in the substance use disorder community is being able to retain that dignity, and that control is so important to them. Because what they found, and what I've heard a lot is that there's a lot of shame that goes into this. If there's anything that we can do as a community to give them back that dignity, let them retain that control while they're detoxing in a more comfortable way to get to sobriety, I am 100% for it.
[0:21:44] DW: Wow, that's fascinating. I love those terms, the dignity and control, because I think of that and I think immediately, what are the choices? The choice to come down. So once someone has made the choice to get well, many of us have obligations and things in our lives. So choices of, “Well, do I leave employment to get well? Can I still be a caregiver to loved ones who are around me to get well?” Sometimes it feels like that's the only choice. Then, the opportunity to provide additional options as you just laid out.
I have to give a nice tip of the hat to our friends in the professional world at ASAM. I think they're reviewing their updated criteria and one of the components they've added to the patient screening criteria is that, no matter what the course of treatment, will the patient comply to the therapy as recommended? I think what a great component, because to me, that goes back to dignity and control. Ultimately, the patient's compliance, and the follow through is very, very critical to the efficacy of any therapy being presented, and especially therapies that allow for options like continued employment, things that are welcome in the home. Those can be really empowering for the individual. That's what ultimately, I see what you're doing at HOPE is empowerment. Hope is one thing. Empowerment to take the next step is a complete nother. It's neat to see your organization offer that action forward for the individuals that it can affect. Thank you for that.
[0:23:20] TW: Of course. I think one other thing to add there, Dan, is the fact that a lot of people who are addicted didn't just choose to start using. It wasn't just, "Hey, I think today, I'm going to choose to start – I'm going to run down under the bridge and grab this dose of whatever." It can happen so innocently to anybody. It can be a simple prescription because you had a surgery, and then you physiologically become dependent on it, and then you're addicted, and then what? Then that kind of spirals from there. And it could be something as simple as, in your community, you maybe are a person who is a user of a different substance, and maybe it's a legal substance, and you couldn't find it legally, so you went and bought it from somebody else. But what they're finding is that marijuana, for example, often is being laced with fentanyl.
So, you become addicted to a narcotic with no desire to ever try it. Some people that are addicted, that wasn't their choice. It wasn't something that they actively thought, "Today, I'm going to do this, and I'm going to start this, and this is what I'm going to do with my life." This was something that sometimes happened to them without their permission. I think, to some degree, as a community, it is our civic duty to help people come out of that.
If you look at other things in the community, service members with PTSD is a great example. Yes, they signed up to go into the service, and I'm very, very grateful for them. My husband's a veteran. They signed up to go in, they came out with PTSD, it is our civic duty, and most people would agree, to help our service members come back and live as normal life as they possibly can. This should be no different in the substance use disorder community. This is often not a choice, and now it's our responsibility as a whole, to help people come back into what they perceive is their normal life again.
[0:25:26] DW: Yes, absolutely. What a great message. Just to echo it, I mean, from my time in service within Spark Biomedical, it's a great privilege to know and to continue to interact with so many phenomenal people who are in recovery. The promises of their life and contributions to their community, their loved ones, their employers are just phenomenal. I mean, they're huge. So to provide that opportunity to every single person who wants that opportunity, I agree. That is something that we as a society need to take on. Because it's funny, I've heard it said in recovery communities and things that, “Thank goodness that we don't ask people when they first take the step forward to get well what they envision their life would be like. Because most people will shortchange themselves on what they're actually capable of.”
I see so much of that around us in our communities, and I see your organization as helping to pull away that curtain for the most critical first step for the beneficiaries and those affected to take. Because just like any journey, if you don't take the first step, you will not progress forward. I think that's awesome, to lower that bar, to break down that societal stigma, and to dedicate such a great stage, and a focus to it, I think does us all a service. As you mentioned, this is a community disease. For us to take that on and to remove the stigmas. This is not a moral failing, this is not a choice. Quite frankly, it doesn't matter. What matters is we need to get people well and to lower those barriers.
Thank you so much for what you do in that space. I think, as including all modalities to accomplish that is such a critical component, so that we don't leave people on the sidelines. What a great parallel to draw to service members, and thank your husband for his service, and all the service members out there. I mean, that is a noble cause. It's great to see within the same household, you taking on such a noble cause here, so greatly appreciate it.
[0:27:37] TW: Thank you.
[0:27:38] DW: Well, Tiffany, I want to thank you so much for your time, and in wrapping up our discussion for today, is there anything else that you'd like to share with our audience about your mission at HOPE, and also, your candidacy for Mrs. United States?
[0:27:52] TW: Well, we're always looking for champions of HOPE. That's what we're calling our volunteers. Because truly, when you join our cause, you become a champion, and take charge of that in your community and those people that are suffering. We're always looking for champions to lead the fundraising efforts, or lead the community awareness programs, or help us find pilots. So if you're interested at all in joining the movement, we are happy to have you. As far as my candidacy is concerned, I would say, just follow me on social media, follow me in my journey, take part as much as you can, and enjoy the ride. I love having this big voice, and I certainly appreciate you bringing me into your podcast, and letting me continue to use this platform in my title for good.
[0:28:41] DW: Excellent, excellent. Well, once again, we will put that contact information into the sub-links and data associated with our podcast. We'll also place it here as we sign off. Tiffany, thank you so much for joining me today on Vital Spark. For our audience, once again, please join me in thanking Tiffany Wharton, Executive Director and Founder of HOPE, and newly crowned Mrs. Wisconsin. Thank you, Tiffany.
[0:29:08] TW: Thank you.
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