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KU researchers partner with First Call to fight opioid epidemic

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

LAWRENCE — Across the country, people are dying every day as the opioid crisis looms. In the Kansas City area, opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled in the last four years. University of Kansas researchers are partnering with First Call to find out what services are available to people struggling with addiction in the Kansas City area and to prevent others from facing addiction before the problem worsens.

First Call Alcohol/Drug Prevention & Recovery, which specializes in helping individuals dealing with substance use disorders, facilitates an opioid treatment work group, a subcommittee of the Kansas City Opioid Epidemic Task Force, to evaluate the crisis in the Kansas City area and determine steps to take in fighting it. The organization sought help from KU researchers to gather and analyze data on needs and area resources.

Nancy Kepple, assistant professor of social welfare, and Amitta Parker, graduate research assistant, are leading KU’s efforts. The researchers are working with First Call to produce a needs assessment that will address questions such as:

  • What services in the area provide drug recovery services
  • Whether services are public or private
  • How many beds facilities offer
  • Which facilities accept or require insurance
  • How many doctors and nurses that facilities have on staff
  • Whether they offer medication-assisted recovery.

“What we’re trying to do is create a comprehensive list of what’s available across the Greater Kansas City area so that First Call can have a list of what’s out there and share that with the community,” Kepple said. “We’re also exploring research questions with the data, such as if there is a spatial match between what’s available and where the needs are.”

Susan Whitmore, CEO of First Call, said the project will compare at least three directories of addiction and recovery services in the area, find what they do and do not have in common and produce a master list that can be presented to service providers as well as policy makers and help encourage people to collaborate outside of their established routines to more effectively combat the crisis. Having data gathered and analyzed by KU researchers will help ensure First Call can present the best possible information to funders, policy makers and service providers, which will in turn help provide better service to the community, she added.

Kepple and Whitmore noted that in areas of the country hardest hit by the opioid crisis, people frequently begin taking prescribed opioid pain medications. Those drugs can lead to addictions, leading people to seek more, and often when their prescriptions run out, turn them to more dangerous drugs like heroin. That problem is compounded by the fact that heroin is cheap on the street and prescription painkillers are expensive. Early research by the opioid work group has shown that post-treatment services are badly needed.

“We know that people are dying from overdoses mostly after they complete treatment,” Whitmore said. “It’s really been a tragedy. We feel that we can do a better job of meeting the needs of people who are trying to recover, and we want to be able to do that.”

Whether they are adults who were prescribed drugs by a doctor or young people who took opiate pills from the family medicine cabinet, people who enter detox or rehabilitation have found there are few options for support after completing treatment, Whitmore said. The project aims to see what such services are available, how they can best be enhanced and where in the area they are most needed. The goal is to help provide more support for individuals and families in recovery and to prevent relapses or situations in which people overdose after tolerance declines following treatment.

In states where the crisis has shifted from prescription pills to heroin, it has happened rapidly, and systems have been overwhelmed. Kepple said they hope to be able to help prevent that from happening in the Kansas City area by determining how treatment options are linked and providing recovery advocacy.

“What’s out there? How do you make those services available to people? We want to answer these questions so we can minimize overdoses and help people obtain the help they need. We want to develop a system that’s responsive to those needs sooner than later,” Kepple said.

Researchers are in the beginning stages of conducting a census of available services and surveying service providers. The goal is to have the report completed within the year. Having the report in place will help First Call communicate results to the larger community. In addition, it will provide empirical data to show where funding can be allocated to develop service capacity where it is needed most before the crisis worsens.

Image via WikiCommons.

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