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Teaming to Tackle Opioid Use Disorder

As a clinical nurse, Sharon Davis saw women who suffered from substance use disorder vilified by their doctors. She didn’t yet know about the science of addiction, but she knew that didn’t feel right.

Davis, a clinical associate professor of nursing, and Laurie Meschke, professor of public health, are leading an effort to address opioid abuse disorder (OUD) in rural East Tennessee. Their interdisciplinary team successfully pursued funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) twice.

Their Rural Communities Opioid Response Program-East Tennessee Consortium (RCORP-ETC), was created from a collaboration that started with a SPARKS (Seeking Partnerships for Research, Knowledge, and Science) event hosted by the Office of Research and Engagement’s research development group.

In approximately one month, an interdisciplinary team convened, bringing together faculty from nursing, public health, communications, and social work. Jennifer Webster, research development manager, led the proposal support team to ensure a competitive proposal development effort that included collection of 50 community partner letters.

“The research development group helped us identify expertise in the room, put a very short timeline to the process, and helped people put ‘feet to the fire.’ I had never been a project director before, but I stepped out of my comfort zone and decided I wanted to try to do this,” Davis said.

“Prior to this project, I didn’t know what services were available in ORE,” she continued. “The key is to get to know them, talk to them about what ideas you have, and let them guide you.”

The team was awarded a $200,000 planning grant in 2018 to cultivate partnerships to address substance use disorder in rural communities, including OUD.  The targeted counties in East Tennessee included Campbell, Claiborne, Cocke, Grainger, Hamblen, Jefferson, Morgan, Roane, Scott, and Union.

Consortium members included federal-qualified health centers, county health professionals, law enforcement, regional medical examiners, judicial system professionals, drug coalitions, emergency medical providers, mental health providers, OUD treatment providers, poison control, UT Extension Offices, regional homeless coalitions, payers, and caregivers/patients.

In 2019, HRSA announced its $1 million implementation grant opportunity, which the RCORP-ETC team also pursued successfully. In addition to Davis and Meschke, Co-Directors of RCORP-ETC, team members included Jennifer Tourville, clinical assistant professor of nursing; Brian Winbigler, assistant professor of pharmacy; and Jenny Crowley, assistant professor of communications studies.

Meschke, whose research focuses on adolescent health and perinatal health, led the health assessment and strategic planning portions of the planning grant, which drove the implementation grant effort. Sharon Pound, research development manager, led the support team’s effort for this proposal.

Together, the team developed a series of 17 activities to address prevention, treatment, and recovery related to OUD.  They worked with a wide range of community members to develop a comprehensive set of solutions customized to the needs of rural East Tennessee, staying true to the strategic plan.

“The biggest reason for the consortium is that we need reciprocal interaction between the community and the university to make the best research possible,” Meschke explained.

“Having input from the community helps guide our research, prioritize what we need to be working on, and sequence what we are working on,” she added. “We can build all the trainings that we want; but if the community is not buying in and they don’t view that it has value for them, it’s not going to be attractive, and they will not come.”

For example, Meschke says young people can assess what OUD looks like in their community, then prioritize what they think should be changed or enhanced to make a difference.

“With this idea, young people can have a voice at the table, and sometimes, it’s a voice that is so fresh that it’s listened to a little bit more closely than their adult counterparts. We’re excited about this, because adolescents are oven overlooked when it comes to opioid use disorder,” Meschke said.

Meschke encourages other faculty to ask for help from ORE.

“If you don’t write a grant, you won’t win a million. If you think you can do it by yourself, by all means, go for it. But, there is something very wonderful and supportive about having fresh eyes on the project, having fresh energy, because especially with tight turnarounds, people are pretty tired. So, ask ORE for what you need.”