Researchers, policymakers and practitioners gathered at Duke May 1 to discuss how to strengthen working relationships and share evidence-based programs addressing the U.S. opioid crisis. The event, “State and Research University Partnerships in the Opioid Crisis,” was organized by Duke Policy Bridge, part of the Sanford School of Public Policy, and the Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management (APPAM).
Frederick Mayer, professor of Public Policy at Sanford and Policy Bridge director, welcomed the group of more than 150. “Today’s program brings together all the elements of what we teach in Public Policy,” he said. Dr. Susan Kansagra, section chief of chronic disease and injury for the N.C. Division of Public Health, described the event as, “a great opportunity to get people in a room who wouldn’t ordinarily meet.”
Connecting researchers with policymakers
One of the day’s themes was how best to connect researchers with policymakers to ensure timely information gets to those who need it. Jenni Owen, senior policy adviser to N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, noted policymakers are often inundated with “let me know if I can help” emails. A more useful approach, she told attendees, is to reach out and, “provide timely, targeted, relevant information.” Owen understands well the potential value of links between researchers and policymakers: She is on leave from her role as senior lecturer at the Sanford School.
Attendees split up into break-out sessions addressing support services for children in households with substance abuse; assisting state officials with data science inquiries; embedding networks for treatment after overdose; and providing a system of care in underserved and rural communities.
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Sanford professor Fritz Mayer with Jenni Owen, senior policy adviser to Gov. Roy Cooper, and Steve Mange, senior policy and strategy counsel to N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein.
Speakers shared their experiences with successful programs. Deputy Sheriff Donnie Varnell, from Dare County, described how his county’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is working: “If we go on a call and it turns out to be someone using drugs, we now ask, ‘Do you want to go to treatment?’ You don’t have to be arrested to get into the program.” That can mean significant cost savings, he added, citing $78 per person, per day “for someone sitting in jail,” versus “$24 for treatment and other services.”
Tailoring a program to a community
Another common theme was the importance of tailoring a program to a community—and that ALL stakeholders from that community need to be at the table to discuss the program. That includes the drug users who will benefit from the program and the law enforcement officers and others who will implement it. The LEAD program began to work, Varnell said, “when we all sat down at a table and broke bread” and realized they shared a common goal. “We knew we wanted to help individuals get to a better place.”
The final panel of the day was moderated by Erich Senin Huang, co-director of Duke Forge and assistant dean for Biomedical Informatics at the Duke School of Medicine. Dana Bernson, assistant director for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, talked about how her office has been able to link data from various state and community sources, improving accuracy in reporting of opioid deaths and overdoses. Understanding the scope of the problem, panelists agreed, is vital to solving it; research universities, with their wealth of knowledge and resources, can be valuable partners.
Many found the day’s discussions valuable, and attendees could be seen chatting and exchanging business cards throughout the day. Among them was Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, PhD, chief operating officer of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS), one of the event sponsors. She is actively involved in addiction research. “Tackling the opiate epidemic requires collaboration across academic disciplines, and between the academy and the community, along with an understanding of the brain science of addiction, and ultimately, behavior change. DIBS was proud to play a part in sponsoring this incredibly engaging event!”
Other sponsors were the N.C. Scholars Strategy Network and the ncIMPACT program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government.