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Studying the Opioid Epidemic in Rural New England

March 05, 2019

Researchers at UMass Chan Medical School-Baystate are participating in a federally funded study—the National Rural Opioid Initiative—to better understand the opioid epidemic and available health services in rural communities throughout New England.

Rural New England's Biggest Public Health Challenge

The opioid use disorder (OUD) epidemic with it's increased risk of overdose and infection with HIV, hepatitis C, and sexually transmitted diseases, is the biggest public health challenge facing rural New England in decades, according to Dr. Peter Friedmann, principal investigator of the study.

The research team is based at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, MA but is working in locations throughout the Interstate 91 corridor all the way up to the Canadian border.

They will map opioid use and infectious disease and compare that distribution to the availability of substance use treatment, harm reduction programs (e.g. needle exchanges and naloxone distribution), and medical care for infectious diseases.

This data can be used to help create better, more accessible services, and result in reducing overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases

A Whole Population that Doesn't Want to Be Known

Recruitment is made challenging by the stigma surrounding addiction and the fear of law enforcement common among those with OUD, according to Julie Kingsbury, Clinical Research Coordinator.

So researchers are using a referral-based system—Respondent Driven Sampling—designed to find members of hard-to-reach or hidden populations. In this study, participants get coupons to give to others who they know are using drugs. They also receive an incentive if someone they have referred joins the study.

"Someone injecting heroin every day is not having fun," says Bianchet. "It's a lonely, painful, difficult place."

Still, most study participants recognize the importance of the study and want to help improve the situation for others.

Baystate is one of only eight institutions in the U.S. receiving funding to participate in the National Rural Opioid Initiative. The research grant is from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, and the Appalachian Regional Commission.