Carla Worley Saunders has been a board certified Neonatal Nurse Practitioner since 1991 receiving her Doctor of Nursing Practice in 2017. Dr. Saunders has a dedicated passion in her work advocating for mothers and babies affected by the opioid epidemic which led her to her doctoral work and has now created a larger vision for improving communities and public health through empowering women to make educated health care choices and empowering healthcare to work collaboratively to impart a culture change in pain management practices.
In late 2010, Dr. Saunders gathered a multidisciplinary team in response to the alarming rise in number of babies being admitted to the NICU suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) as a result of Intrauterine Drug Exposure (IDE). The program has treated over 2000 babies for NAS through 2016. The work done by her team has received local, state, national, and international attention. This work has gone beyond the bedside and into the community raising awareness, providing education, and promoting primary prevention strategies working in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Health. She is consulted frequently and involved extensively in research surrounding IDE and NAS and has been called to testify as an expert witness before the TN State Senate. Dr. Saunders has been an advocate and catalyst for the development of evidence-based treatment for pregnant women with chronic pain or SUD, standardized screening protocols to identify at risk infants, and standardized evidence-based treatment practices for infants with NAS.
Dr. Saunders passion, dedication and promise to help the mothers and babies she has cared for has drawn her away from the bedside to serve in the public health arena focusing on primary prevention of SUD through collaborative healthcare. Through an initiative at the Tennessee Department of Health, Dr. Saunders has worked to establish C.O.A.C.H. TN, a not-for-profit organization, Controlling Opioid Abuse through Collaborative Healthcare born from an expressed desire within the medical community to unite as a collective voice and change the course of the opioid epidemic in Tennessee. The purpose of C.O.A.C.H. TN is to empower Tennessee healthcare to work collaboratively for safe and effective pain care. The collaborative has identified three main objectives: 1) facilitate statewide, real time, readily accessible opioid education to all healthcare providers 2) facilitate consumer messaging regarding pain management and opioid use that is consistent with provider education and 3) Identify and promote scalable evidence-based approaches to pain management. As CEO/Executive director, Dr. Saunders intends to facilitate information exchange and resource sharing among disciplines optimizing the effectiveness of each individual discipline and thus the collective impact of healthcare to affect a positive change in the quality of life for all Tennesseans.
Dr. Saunders has received multiple awards for her innovative leadership in quality improvement and patient advocacy. She is a member of numerous community, state, and national professional organizations serving as an Advisory Board member for the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit since 2011, which has brought in keynote speakers such as the Surgeon General of the United States and President Barack Obama. She is a member of the advisory board for the Tennessee Chronic Pain Guidelines authoring appendices for Women of Childbearing Age and Pregnant Women and recently authored a book chapter on Opioid Use Disorder During Pregnancy and NAS for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP). Their multidisciplinary holistic approach to care of the infant with NAS was published in the Journal of Neonatal and Perinatal Nursing: Special Edition on Addiction.
Through her work, Dr. Saunders has realized that the magnitude of the suffering of these tiny patients goes far beyond their bedside. Their painful cries bring attention to the opioid epidemic and the need to destigmatize the face of addiction. Her vision emphasizes screening for substance use disorders as a part of routine wellness care and imparts a global “call to action” for all health care providers, and payers, to adopt universal screening practices at each health care encounter.