The National Institutes of Health has announced a new initiative to fight opioid use disorder (OUD) in the U.S. The HEALing Communities Study will test a comprehensive prevention and treatment model aimed at communities hit hard by the opioid crisis.

The model includes evidence-based practices to lower deaths linked to opioid overdose. Researchers recently published the paper in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Opioids are sometimes prescribed by doctors to manage chronic pain and some illnesses. But doctors should consider other treatment options before prescribing opioids, when possible, because patients who take opioids may be at risk of addiction. At first, the initial prescribed dose may work and help manage the pain. Over time, however, the same dose may no longer provide relief as the body gets used to it. This can result in patients needing higher doses. The higher the dose, the greater the chance for overdoses.

The pandemic's impact on opioid overdoses

The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP) recently showed the impact COVID-19 has had on the epidemic of opioid overdoses, by highlighting the increased rate of overdoses in the U.S. The team analyzed COVID-19 implications on the epidemic for seven weeks. The researchers found no statistical difference in the report of overdoses for the first six weeks. But the latest analysis, released on May 5, revealed an association between COVID-19 and the opioid epidemic. The relationship appeared strong in two of the six analyzed states.

The following indicated statistical changes:

  • Shelby County, Tenn.: 391 suspected overdoses from April 7 to May 7, 2020, were reported. Of those, 58 cases were fatal.
  • Franklin County, Ohio: a 50% rise in deaths in the first four months of 2020, compared to the same period last year.
  • Milwaukee, Wis.: a 54% increase in drug overdose calls in March and April 2020, compared to the number of calls in the same period last year.

The report cited factors that may have a role in the rising drug use during COVID-19. Some of the factors include discrimination, stigma and difficulties accessing harm-reduction services. The team offered potential options, such as access to on-demand services, teleconferencing and better scheduling of monitoring methods.

The model to address opioido verdoses

Over the past 20 years, the opioid epidemic has cost the nation lives and money, researchers wrote in the paper. The 2018 report from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated 10.3 million Americans, aged 12 or older, had misused opioids in the past year. From 1999 to 2018, about 450,000 people died from drug overdose related to any opioid. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, and psychostimulant drugs contributed to the surge in overdoses.

The majority of opioid overdose deaths are preventable. The problem is the gap between communities and treatment. Closing that gap would give more people with OUD access to effective treatments.

The HEALing Communities Study is designed to close that gap and reduce overdose cases. How will the multiyear study work?

The study will test its community-based, data-driven model in 67 communities across four states, using a wide range of settings: primary care clinics, hospital emergency departments, community health centers, addiction treatment centers and correctional institutions.

Additionally, research sites like the University of Kentucky, Boston Medical Center and Columbia University in New York will participate in the study. Some of the objectives include reaching more people who need OUD treatment, improving the duration of treatments beyond six months, providing additional support services, and expanding the distribution of naloxone, a treatment that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose.

Researchers hope that the method will reduce opioid overdose deaths by 40% in three years.

The take-home

The opioid crisis has affected millions of lives worldwide. Many households across the globe have experienced bad outcomes due to substance abuse. It is important for everyone to step up to fight the crisis. In this pandemic, effective methods and better access treatments can help those who want to be freed from OUD.

Approaches like the HEALing Communities Study in the U.S. may help in the efforts to prevent opioid addiction and overdoses. These approaches may also work outside the U.S., particularly in areas with high drug use rates. The approaches are not limited to illegal drugs. They can also save patients with chronic pain who have used opioids for years from adverse outcomes.

Ralph Chen is an enthusiast of medical topics and advanced technologies. When not writing, he spends time playing popular PC games.