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UNC researchers fight ongoing opioid epidemic

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DTH Photo Illustration. Opioid abuse continues to be a pervasive problem in North Carolina. Since 2018, UNC has been working to mitigate the effects of the opioid epidemic and research safer pharmacological alternatives to treating pain.

The opioid epidemic is far from over, and continues to have detrimental effects on communities in North Carolina.

“More than 4,000 North Carolinians lost their lives to overdose in 2021 — the highest number in the history of the state,” Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said at a recent Board of Trustees meeting. “The pandemic has only exacerbated this crisis, with deaths jumping by more than 70 percent since 2019.” 

At UNC, several initiatives are working to alleviate the crisis, including UNC Health programs, research on opioids and the Opioid Response Project.

Opioid Stewardship Committee

The Opioid Stewardship Committee, created by UNC Health, aims to reduce opioid abuse and diversion in North Carolina through multiple outlets. Its goals include increasing access to safe and convenient disposal of opioids as well as educating patients and providers on proper ways to use and store medications, according to its website. 

The committee is also working to develop and implement a Standard Opioid Prescribing Schedule that uses data regarding surgical procedures and patient usage to prescribe opioids with caution. 

UNC Horizons

UNC Horizons is a recovery-focused treatment program aiming to help women with substance use disorders. The program is led by Hendrée Jones through the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UNC's School of Medicine and uses a trauma-responsive model of care. UNC Horizons offers a range of residential and outpatient services as well as employment assistance and handling finances, according to its website.

Carolina Nursing Excellence in Whole Health Care

Victoria Soltis-Jarrett, a board-certified family psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner, created a nurse practitioner program at UNC that addresses the opioid epidemic by training future nurse practitioners in behavioral health integration and substance use disorders. 

The Carolina Nursing Excellence in Whole Health Care program focuses specifically on rural areas since there is a severe shortage of healthcare providers in these communities, Soltis-Jarrett said. She said it can be daunting for recent graduates to begin working in rural areas as they are expected to be able to handle a broad range of responsibilities without additional support. 

“The outcome is to help nurse practitioners placed in these medically underserved communities transition from being a recent graduate to a supported and more confident and more competent nurse practitioner,” Soltis-Jarrett said. 

Research

In addition to these projects and programs, there is a substantial amount of research being conducted at UNC across multiple disciplines, expanding understandings of how to approach the opioid epidemic. This research spans from examining the effectiveness of treatment methods to substance use's impact on prenatal care to racial disparities in treatment access.

Furthermore, UNC-based researchers are working on a “better opioid," something previously impossible as the structure of opioid receptors was unknown.

Dr. Bryan Roth, alongside his colleagues at the School of Medicine and Eshelman School of Pharmacy, is using newfound understanding of opioid structure to develop a drug-like compound with similar pain-relieving benefits — minus the severe side effects. 

“Our researchers are solving the grand challenges of our time, and looking forward to the challenges of the future,” Guskiewicz said. “The breakthroughs and solutions that will come from their work will save lives and make the world a better place.” 

The Opioid Response Project

To combat the crisis, UNC's School of Government created the Opioid Response Project in partnership with the ncIMPACT Initiative and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.

The ORP was designed to be a two-year program supporting 10 local communities across North Carolina in their work to handle the crisis. Liaisons from the School of Government work with each team to help them over any hurdles they were experiencing, Kimberly Nelson, co-lead of the ORP, said. 

“Our idea was to develop collaboratives within counties and have these multi-member groups work together to try to do an individualized program in each community to affect whatever they were able to identify as the most significant problems from the opioid epidemic,” she said.

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The process of building the project began in 2018, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and did not actually end until last year. Nelson said the teams that were most successful in the project continued work beyond the project’s end, including those in Cumberland, Onslow and Cabarrus counties.

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