Misuse of opioids has led to a crisis in our nation, with more than 42,000 deaths from overdoes in 2016. This is a 30 percent increase from the previous year, and it has actually lowered U.S. life expectancy. Additionally, new research suggests that these numbers may be underestimating opioid-related deaths by approximately a third. The Opioid Task Force at Texas A&M University Health Science Center is combating this growing public health emergency with a dedicated team of scholars and practitioners.
Since its establishment last January, the Opioid Task Force has systematically developed its research, education and outreach capabilities to address the opioid epidemic. Opioid Task Force Chairperson Dr. Marcia G. Ory, Regents and Distinguished Professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, said that a multifaceted, collaborative strategy is necessary, and is building an infrastructure to respond to this epidemic. The task force aims to utilize scholars and practitioners to prevent and manage the opioid epidemic, ultimately improving health and reducing costs for all affected by this epidemic. They are looking into preventing addiction, treatment for those addicted and avoiding preventable overdose deaths from both a provider and patient perspective.
[Photo: Dr. Marcia G. Ory]
Composed of a multidisciplinary group of representatives from across the Texas A&M Health Science Center, the Opioid Task Force is partnering with university and community experts invested in solving this crisis. This approach involves promoting naloxone as a way to reverse opioid overdose, raising awareness of available treatment and educating prescribers and patients on alternative pain treatments.
“As this epidemic requires broad expertise, we reached out to experts around campus interested in the opioid epidemic, and we established the Transdisciplinary Opioid Research Collaboratory, a virtual center without walls where we can collaborate without regard to physical locations,” Dr. Ory said. “We wanted a rapid deployment force that can explore different research, practice and education opportunities. Thus far, we have more than 30 colleagues, and we have already applied for several research grants.”
As a companion to the research collaboratory, the Opioid Task Force has also established the Opioid Action Alliance of Texas Network, representing health care partners, community organizations and the business community. This network is the community arm of the task force, reflecting issues faced by the public. The task force recognizes the importance of community members helping to identify problems and solutions in the practice of opioid prevention, treatment, and recovery.
“We’ve had the first alliance network meeting with members of the public health and treatment community to learn more about the local context of the opioid crisis. We are identifying specific needs in the community, what problems people want fixed,” Dr. Ory said. “That’s why we have partnerships with the criminal justice system, treatment providers, the medical community and community-based organizations. We strongly believe research is enhanced by a close engagement of a community advisory group.”
Community changes can best be implemented by working with the community, and the task force wants to address behaviors and environmental factors leading to opioid abuse. As September is National Recovery Month, dedicated to raising awareness of mental and substance abuse, the task force is sponsoring a documentary screening. An episode of the Showtime series The Trade, which covers the opioid epidemic, will be screened on September 26 at the Rudder Tower in Texas A&M University from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion by experts who will discuss the opioid crisis.
“We are raising awareness and reducing stigma, as people often don’t reach out for assistance, as they don’t know where there is help or because they are reluctant to seek help,” Dr. Ory said. “Texas A&M students who are part of our student ambassador program will be volunteers at this screening, providing information on the opioid epidemic. We want student involvement in this task force and have set up a faculty sponsorship group, where faculty sponsors brainstorm student involvement in research and clinical practices. We are encouraging more students to apply for this program and gain firsthand experience.”
The Opioid Task Force aims to translate its research results to policy and public health practice that can prevent and control opioid abuse. Public health improvement can be brought into the forefront by identifying gaps in research and developing new strategies to combat opioid addiction. For example, Dr. Bree Watzak, an assistant professor at the Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, testified before the Texas House of Representatives Select Committee on Opioids and Substance Abuse. Her testimony covered what the Health Science Center is doing to educate prescribers on curbing the opioid epidemic.
Another task force member is promoting Operation Naloxone to reduce opioid-related deaths. Dr. Joy Alonzo, clinical assistant professor at the College of Pharmacy, is involved in this project to teach others on how to use naloxone, the medication used to reverse an opioid overdose. More than 100 first responders received free training on using this in Texas A&M University at Galveston. Naloxone, although not a cure for addiction, may keep a person alive for another day and give them the chance to seek treatment.
“This task force is like a spark plug, it’s ignited the collaborative research necessary to address the opioid epidemic. We already had the drivers, as in the individual researchers, and now our fleet of scholar cars is moving down the road. Together we hold the collective map to drive our research, practice and education across Texas and the nation to comprehensively tackle this national emergency,” said Dr. Ory.