This story, originally published by the Bristol Herald Courier, appeared Sept. 7, 2017. Copyright 2017 Bristol Herald Courier.
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — East Tennessee State University’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment is on the front lines of studying and addressing the opioid addiction crisis raging in this region.
Established in 2016, the center works in concert with Mountain States Health Alliance and Frontier Health to research and develop solutions to various aspects of the problem, according to Dr. Rob Pack, associate dean for academic affairs.
“There is no one solution to this. There are a lot of very good, existing solutions that need to be done together, in a coordinated, systematic fashion and at scale,” Pack said. “One of the most difficult things is seeing how very good ideas and good programs are done in a very fragmented way.
“A vision for the center is that we will be a central, coordinated unit for activities — taking them from a fragmented approach out to a more holistic, comprehensive approach in our region that includes the eight counties of Northeast Tennessee and three adjoining counties in Southwest Virginia,” Pack said.
The center’s ultimate vision is to work toward a region free from the burden and consequences of illicit drug abuse. Its mission is to partner with the communities it serves, and Pack said his goal is that other areas will come to recruit the world-class practitioners developed through the center’s work.
“We need to give our successes away,” Pack said.
Alan Levine, president and CEO of Mountain States, said the local effort may be the only one of its kind in the nation.
“What we’re doing here is a three-legged stool comprising academics and research, operations experience through the clinical partners, clinical services and wraparound services in the delivery of care,” Levine said.
“I don’t think there is a single partnership like this in the country where an academic institution partners with a clinical institution and says, ‘We’re going to bring these services to the community in a way that makes it [as] accessible as possible for the whole region, provide the full breadth of services, and … try to learn what we do with these patients.’”
A central component of that collaboration will be Overmountain Recovery, a methadone treatment center now under construction in Gray. It will be operated in conjunction with Mountain States and Frontier Health. It will become the fourth such center in a two-hour driving radius, joining facilities in Cedar Bluff, Virginia; Asheville, North Carolina; and Knoxville, Tennessee.
Profits from the treatment facility will be invested into the center to fund prevention, education and outreach activities, Pack said.
“In the long term, we want this clinic and the center to be an absolute asset to the region. We want … to be facilitators of effective, evidence-based programs that will be taken to scale and used across the nation,” he said.
This spring, ETSU officials, including Pack, Dr. Nick Hagemeier and drug abuse research program Director Angela Hagaman, hosted Tennessee’s Speaker of the House Harwell and the House Task Force on Opioid Abuse. The task force, launched in January, was updated on the center’s response.
Harwell said state lawmakers have taken multiple steps to address the state’s opioid addiction problems, but they need help from the experts.
“My goal is [that] this task force will look into the possibility of pilot programs, measure results of these programs and determine best practices,” Harwell said. “I’ve asked this [task force] to look into the treatment options that are available and really delve into the data to see if there is a program being administered that we need to take statewide.”
The ETSU center evolved from a working group of physicians, ETSU staff and community leaders who, in 2012, began discussing issues surrounding opioid abuse and potential solutions. The topic struck a chord with Pack, who conducted research on opioid abuse while at West Virginia University.
That group has generated a series of eight funded projects and other products dealing with prevention, research and treatment, Pack said. It continues to meet regularly.
“The [group’s] purpose is to engage community stakeholders, university researchers and others in a longstanding dialogue and relationship-building process so that we all know what we’re all doing and [can] begin to use our assets in a way to leverage them for a greater impact,” Pack said.
The group has also been “fertile ground” for new initiatives. One of the most important is a separate group focused solely on neonatal abstinence syndrome, Pack said.
“It’s a very troubling thing to watch, and it’s difficult to care for those babies. And it’s quite costly as well,” Pack said. “Their goal is to study predictors and useful methods for treatment of neonatal abstinence syndrome so they can then take those tools and be useful to other clinical operations dealing with this.”
The NAS group was created in 2015 and includes representatives from ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine and Niswonger Children’s Hospital. It now includes about 35 members from medicine, psychology, nursing, allied health and public health, Pack said, all examining treatment options for babies and mothers and seeking ways to reduce costs.
“There are a lot of clinical guidelines for women who are expecting, but they don’t know exactly what works best. The clinical guidelines from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology are pretty well dated, and some new guidelines are coming forward, including from some research being done in Knoxville,” Pack said.
While much of the public’s attention has focused on the center’s role in the planned methadone drug treatment clinic, Levine said its overarching efforts can generate positive impacts for the region, state and nation.
“I am unaware that any university in Tennessee has invested the management time, structure and resources in creating what we’ve created here at ETSU,” Levine said. “I see this as a tremendous opportunity for investment by the state because ETSU can become a national center of excellence for understanding the problem and disseminating information nationally on how to deal with and combat this problem.”
David McGee, Bristol Herald Courier