Nov. 18 2019

Study Seeks Community Insights to Prevent Opioid Deaths

As the opioid epidemic continues to ravage American communities, a multidisciplinary group of Columbia University researchers laid out the goals and guiding principles of a large new study that aims to sharply reduce opioid overdose deaths in New York state.

Funded through a $86 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to the Columbia School of Social Work, the HEALING Communities study involves a research team led by social work professors but also involving their colleagues in Columbia Psychiatry and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

In opening remarks at the Low Library event, Melissa Begg, dean of the School of Social Work and a former faculty member in biostatistics at Columbia Mailman, said the study would employ community- and data-driven approaches to meet a goal of reducing opioid overdose deaths in 16 heavily affected counties by 40 percent over four years. According to the most recent national statistics, 130 people die every day from opioid overdoses.

“This is an incredibly important study,” said Dean Begg. “Lives literally depend on it.”

One of four study sites nationally, the New York arm of HEALING Communities will deploy evidence-based interventions for overdose prevention and education, including by improving access to medications that treat dependence and reverse overdoses, and by reducing the stigma associated with opioid use and treatments. Led by Principal Investigator Nabila El-Bassel, University Professor and the Willma and Albert Musher Professor of Social Work, the study is being conducted in partnership with a diverse group of community stakeholders, including those with lived experience of opioid use.

As part of a panel discussion with core members of the research team, Katherine Keyes, Columbia Mailman associate professor of epidemiology, said community involvement is critical to the success of the science that undergirds the project—a method called agent-based modeling. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, she and her colleagues are developing a model to account for the different ways the intervention takes form in various communities depending on questions such as who is using opioids, where treatment providers are located, and how the criminal justice system is involved. This community-level data will guide the implementation of the interventions.

“The characteristics of the community make a difference,” Keyes said. “We will be working with communities to understand what their barriers are. [...] What we bring to the table is integrating community experience into data science.”

Watch the November 18 event: