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Community intervention did not lower opioid deaths like researchers hoped, federal study shows

The National Institute of Health’s HEALing Communities Study was the largest addiction-prevention and treatment-implementation study conducted, the agency said.
A container of Narcan, a brand name version of the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone.
Posted at 5:20 PM, Jun 17, 2024

A research study mandated by the federal government to look at how carrying out evidence-based public health strategies could lower opioid-related deaths did not find a significant reduction in the communities that were examined, according to data published Sunday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Launched in 2019, the National Institute of Health’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEALing) Communities Study was the largest addiction prevention and treatment implementation study conducted, according to the agency.

Researchers worked with coalitions in 67 communities across Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio, which NIH said were four of the states hit hardest by the opioid crisis.

The community interventions included a focus on increasing opioid education and naloxone distribution, enhancing access to medication for opioid use disorder and safer opioid prescribing and dispensing, according to the study. There was also a series of communication campaigns to help reduce stigma and increase the demand for evidence-based practices, NIH said.

The communities were randomly assigned to receive the interventions or be studied as a control group.

However, the communities that received the interventions did not show a statistical difference in the overall rate of opioid-related deaths in comparison to those that didn’t, researchers said.

The research group believes the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit right after the study began, and the increased presence of fentanyl in the illicit drug market impacted the effectiveness of the interventions — both of which were factors that could not have been predicted.

“This study brought researchers, providers, and communities together to break down barriers and promote the use of evidence-based strategies that we know are effective, including medications for opioid use disorder and naloxone,” said NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow in a statement. “Yet, particularly in the era of fentanyl and its increased mixture with psychostimulant drugs, it’s clear we need to continue developing new tools and approaches for addressing the overdose crisis. Ongoing analyses of the rich data from this study will be critical to guiding our efforts in the future.”

Despite the lackluster results of the study, its director Dr. Redonna Chandler said it was “an incredible feat for implementation science” and showed communities can effectively implement evidence-based practices when given the tools.

Related: Fewer US overdose deaths were reported last year, but experts are still cautious