A medical institution getting federal money to conduct a study is normally the kind of news that blooms and fades faster than spring’s cherry blossoms. There’s the usual one-day “hooray for our team” kind of coverage and then the researchers and physicians retreat to their offices and labs until maybe someone, someday, takes notice when the study’s results are published, typically years later.
If you thought the publicity around Boston Medical Center’s recent $89 million grant to dramatically bend the curve of the opioid crisis would follow the same unfortunate pattern, it won’t, and it shouldn’t.
This grant, from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, called the HEALing Communities Study, has no precedent. With the goal of reducing opioid overdose deaths by 40 percent in three years, it involves hospitals, and public health and academic institutions partnering with communities across the state, taking everything we’ve learned about the opioid epidemic to this point and applying the best evidence-based practices and treatments to the hardest-hit areas.
The study’s proposal, written by experts from the Grayken Center for Addiction, is breathtaking in its ambition, scope, and goals. Hundreds of lives could be saved in the 16 participating communities in Massachusetts as a result of this grant; ultimately, many more lives in other states will be saved if new services developed by clinical innovators are delivered to people who are addicted to opioids.
But it will be challenging. Dr. Alex Walley, director of BMC’s Addiction Medicine Fellowship Program, compares the effort to the Apollo moon project, for which the goal to land a man on the moon was announced before the required rocket had been invented. If the study achieves its goals, it will be worth the cost.
Like the Apollo project, it will require partnerships and support from institutions well beyond the walls of BMC. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health will be a key partner in this study, as will the pioneers, experts, researchers, and physicians at most of the area’s hospitals and public health and medical schools. All of them were eager to help, to commit their particular talents and data; no one has refused to join this monumental, historic effort.
We look forward to working closely with elected officials, health care organizations, law enforcement departments, schools, and businesses in the 16 participating communities: Brockton, Gloucester, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, North Adams, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Salem, Springfield, Weymouth, and related towns in Barnstable County, Bristol County, Franklin County, Hampshire County, and Middlesex County. We will only succeed because of these collaborations within these communities. In partnership, we will work to assess the needs of each community, and tailor how the best practices can be implemented.
We hope to learn things that can then be used as models in towns, cities, and rural areas across the country. What model of delivery of medications for opioid use disorder works better in one community than another? What works best to get a community to adopt treatments that they hadn’t previously adopted? What are the economics of getting programs up and going? This study will try new things and evaluate them. There’s much to offer, but there’s also much to learn.
We invite the media to stay involved, to dedicate ongoing coverage to the project as it unfolds, to keep the pressure on and hold us accountable.
Can we really cut opioid-related deaths, which last year numbered nearly 2,000 in Massachusetts, by 40 percent in these communities by 2022? It’s daunting, but we believe we can. We plan to pull out all stops. We will look scrupulously at the data and together decide where the best opportunities are to make progress. We will assemble the best team, here at Boston Medical Center, at other medical institutions, and in those communities that opioid deaths continue to devastate across the state.
It’s our moon shot. The countdown has begun.
Dr. Jeffrey Samet is chief of general internal medicine and principal investigator of the HEALing Communities Study, both at Boston Medical Center.