National Institutes of Health stakes more than $350 million to test opioid prevention and treatment programs in four states.
Over 130 Americans die every day from overdoses of opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Opioid-related overdose fatalities reached an all-time high in 2017, according to data from the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with over 47,000 people dying from opioid overdoses that year.
In a plight to develop adequate solutions to the opioid epidemic, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative, a multi-agency effort aimed at finding solutions to the opioid crisis.
As part of the fight against opioid abuse, NIH awarded over $350 million to research sites in four states that have been hard hit by the opioid crisis — the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Boston Medical Center in Massachusetts, Columbia University in New York City, and Ohio State University in Columbus. Each center will work with at least 15 communities to measure the impact of evidence-based treatment, prevention, and recovery programs through the ongoing HEALing Communities Study.
“All the states are poised in creating coalitions, building community, and involving government officials to have a collective impact,” says team leader Nabila El-Bassel, PhD, master of social work and a professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work in New York City. “We are focusing on policy and system changes by working with the criminal justice systems, healthcare organizations, emergency rooms, schools, and drug treatment programs.”
Dr. El-Bassel clarifies that the four sites will each track how well their community is doing at keeping people in treatment beyond six months, providing recovery support services, and expanding the distribution of naloxone, a medication used to reverse opioid overdose.
“Optimal targeting of overdose-reversing drugs requires understanding who need that tool on hand,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II in a press conference about HEAL. “Better data on the crisis starts on the community level in public health departments and local government. Better pain management starts in doctors offices and pharmacies.”
Effective strategies also promote the more judicious prescribing of opioids and the expansion of access to treatment for opioid use disorder, according to Redonna Chandler, PhD, director of the HEALing Communities Study. Drugs to treat opioid use disorder, such as methadone, have also been shown to be successful in treating opioid addiction. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a new report in March 2019 on how these drugs can produce positive results but individuals often face barriers when it comes to accessing them.
“The opioid epidemic has affected communities all across the country,” says Dr. Chandler, adding that the current menu of interventions have largely failed to penetrate the communities hardest hit by the crisis. “The HEALing Communities Study aims to develop and test community-based approaches to integrate evidence-based prevention and treatment services across healthcare, justice, behavioral health, and other settings to significantly reduce opioid-related morbidity and mortality.”
Alex Elswick, a former opioid addict and founder of Voices of Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps those with opioid use disorder connect to recovery resources, praises the HEAL study as a serious effort to find solutions that work and save tens of thousands of lives.
Elswick, whose addiction started with a prescription to oxycodone following surgery to have his wisdom teeth removed, cycled through jail, in-patient and outpatient treatment centers, and homelessness, while trying to recover from a heroin addiction.
He said that he was never offered medication for opioid use disorder because none of the healthcare professionals he interacted with ever presented it as a legitimate option. Throughout his addiction, he went through cycles of relapse and remission.
“Every time I went to treatment, my parents became hopeful that this was the time that I was going to do it,” says Elswick. “And every time I relapsed, I harmed my family because there was never a meaningful linkage to long-term support services.”
For Those Seeking Immediate Help
While the study will take several years to complete, Chandler suggests the following for people seeking help right now:
- For information about how to know if you or a loved one needs treatment, and how to find it, visit the National Institute of Drug Addiction’s Step-by-Step Guides.
- To find a treatment center in your area, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Locator.
- If you are looking for an addiction specialist, visit the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
El-Bassel and the other research leaders hope that the results from the HEAL study will have a dramatic impact on the opioid crisis by providing lessons and models that other communities will adopt and emulate.
“A 40 percent reduction is an ambitious goal in the midst of this crisis, but we need to be bold in our approach,” says Chandler.