University of Alabama team to build opioid prevention, recovery network in state

University of Alabama team to build opioid prevention, recovery network in state
Dr. Hee Yun Lee, pictured before the pandemic, and a multi-disciplinary team of UA researchers are combatting the opioid crisis by strengthening opioid education and emergency and prevention training in rural Alabama. (University of Alabama)

Following a year of community engagement and assessments of health and rehabilitation services across rural Alabama, a University of Alabama-led team of researchers is ready to implement a robust opioid prevention, treatment and recovery network in the state.

The Health Resources and Services Administration awarded UA researchers $1 million for the Greater Rural Opioid Wellness in Alabama Project, or GROW Alabama, which aims to connect health care providers, emergency services and community members to deliver opioid education, resources and outreach.

GROW Alabama will target Franklin, Marion, Winston, Lamar and Fayette counties, areas identified by HRSA as “high risk” for opioid-related mortality or morbidity, said Hee Yun Lee and Josh Eyer, UA researchers and co-principal investigators for GROW.

Since mid-2019, UA’s multidisciplinary research team has executed the first stage of the project, a planning grant from HRSA to identify gaps in services and urgent needs to address in GROW Alabama, a three-year project already underway.

Opioid abuse and misuse are nationwide crises magnified in Alabama, which in 2018 had the highest opioid prescription rate in the country – a rate that has declined in recent years but is nearly twice the U.S. average – according to drugabuse.gov.

Opioid-related emergency room visits statewide increased by 81% from the end of January through July, according to the University of Alabama’s Matthew Hudnall. (Getty Images)

GROW Alabama’s green light comes at a pivotal time, as COVID-19 has had a devastating impact to those suffering from opioid use disorders in the state, said Matthew Hudnall, associate director of the Institute of Business Analytics at UA and a co-principal investigator for GROW Alabama. Hudnall said opioid-related emergency room visits statewide increased by 81% from the end of January through July.

Lee said her team has a true pulse of rural communities after extensive interviews, surveys and focus groups. Additionally, the 12-member consortium developed over the past year includes a variety of community leaders, such as CEOs and executive directors of community agencies and clinics.

“Health care professionals all talk about needing ongoing education for their profession,” Lee said. “Currently, there’s no ongoing education about how to work with opioid-addicted people; health care workers go to a once-per-year conference, and that’s it.

“Additionally, we learned that health care professionals want peer recovery specialist education for community members, who can help lessen the stigmas around opioid use.”

Peer recovery specialists are people in recovery from substance use who are certified to provide counseling and support to others battling addiction. In GROW Alabama’s three-year plan, peer recovery workers will team with community volunteers to staff health outposts, a public health concept in which workers are trained to treat basic medical conditions and prevent life-threatening events. In this instance, these community health workers will be trained to deliver intranasal naloxone, a rescue medication that interrupts opioid toxicity, and in how to refer people for care at partnering clinics. These health outposts can be in a variety of common, high-traffic areas, such as churches, public libraries and clinics.

“You may think that the librarian is only there for books, but because of the web they have within the community, they know the community,” Lee said. “So they’re being trained on how to work with people in addiction crisis.

“But it can be others, like school teachers and pastors – if they’re well-known and reachable by community members, we’ll train them, and we’ll work with them to create space for opioid-related resource centers and will train them as a paraprofessional for opioid crisis intervention.”

Resources and information will be available through GROW Alabama’s web app.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

Related Stories